View of Choptank River, MD

This marshy spot at the end of Kates Point Road in Talbot County, MD, provides public access to the Choptank River, offering both a lovely view and place to launch a kayak. 

“So you can enjoy this any time, but the rest of us have to wait till you invite us along.”

I’ve heard versions of that comment from friends for decades. This latest followed a glorious encampment — sunset and sunrise perfusing the river, stars rampant above crackling fire. I launched with friends to kayak through a forested Chesapeake swamp, celebrating the winter solstice, Dec. 21, when the tide of day reaches low ebb and begins flooding toward sun-soaked June 21.

It’s a happy outgrowth of working as a Chesapeake journalist and educator for the last half century — the privilege of access to choice waterfront throughout the estuary and its rivers.

Such access for the rest of the 18 million residents must be among our highest goals throughout the Bay’s six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed — no better way to maintain enthusiasm to sustain the long and arduous Chesapeake restoration.

Public access is already a goal of the federal-state restoration. Nearly 200 new launch ramps, piers and other entry points were added to the watershed in the last decade, bringing the total to more than 1,300.

That sounds like a lot, but in fact it may be only about 2% of the Chesapeake region’s tidal edges. The figures on this are somewhat dated, but according to both the Chesapeake Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, approximately 98% of the Bay’s waterfront lacks any point of access for the general public.

And those edges are enchanting. You’ll hear the standard arguments for increasing outdoor recreational opportunities — economics, diversity and inclusion, water quality. All excellent, and all how you sell such things to governments.

But the real magic is in the communion of landscape and tidewater, the fecund overlaps of tideflat and wetlands, of seagrass beds and riparian forests that teem with life and conjure beauties from every mood of light, wind or season; land to gaze seaward from, unspoiled shores to hunt on, fish from and cruise along. That is the ensorcellment, the ineffable essence, the marrow of the land-water edge, of which the Chesapeake Bay has more of than the whole west coastline of the United States.

“I think the time is right … the stars are aligning, to put Chesapeake Bay on a par with other great landscapes — the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, San Francisco Bay’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area,” says Joel Dunn of the Chesapeake Conservancy.

We’re sitting on opposite sides of a big conference table in the COVID-quiet offices of the conservancy, an Annapolis-based nonprofit that Dunn, 43, has led since 2011. He’s talking about a national park, consisting of lands and cultural and historic sites that would someday ring the Chesapeake, taking to a new level the public access that his organization was founded to foster.

The concept’s been around since at least 1986, when the Annapolis Capital Gazette editorialized for such a grand undertaking. More concretely, in 1998 the U.S. Congress, led by the late Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes, passed the National Park Service Gateways Program, which has brought approximately $22 million to bear on providing water access in communities Baywide.

The real bones for a national park (technically, it is proposed as the Chesapeake Bay National Recreation Area) were laid in 2008 by Dunn’s mentor, a remarkable man named Patrick F. Noonan, an early leader of national conservation groups. Working behind the scenes, he has arguably protected more of the U.S. landscape than any private citizen in history.

The Bay is Noonan’s birthplace and his passion. One of the sweetest spots I know to access the estuary is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Karen Noonan Memorial Environmental Education Center in lower Dorchester County, MD. It’s named in honor of Pat’s daughter, a college student aboard Pan Am flight 103, blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, on the winter solstice in 1988.

Through most of the 2000s, Noonan and his young employee, Joel Dunn, worked to create a national historic water trail, capitalizing on the quadricentennial of Capt. John Smith’s 1608 expeditions that literally put the Bay on the map. The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail became law in 2008 and extends more than 2,000 miles up and down the Bay and its rivers. It has no land, but its authorizing language, which flew under the radar of the environmentally conservative George W. Bush administration, lets the National Park Service acquire viewshed land all along the trail.

“I believe Pat wanted a national park, but he felt this was the step he could take,” Dunn said. To date, federal money has secured the 300-acre site of Werowocomoco, where Powhatan met with Smith, on Virginia’s York River. State acquisitions along the trail have added miles of shoreline to the public trust in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

It’s time, Dunn says, to knit it all together, to begin creating a true National Park, to bring in the money and clout, the historical and cultural interpretation and gold-plated tourism branding that being part of the nation’s park system provides.

The governors of Maryland and Virginia have endorsed the concept. Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, an enthusiastic supporter, said in an interview he has assembled a diverse “working group” to build consensus for the park and plans to introduce legislation later in 2021. Having a new president from Delaware, which includes part of the Bay watershed, won’t hurt, Dunn said.

Where might such a park begin? The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 300-acre Holly Beach Farm tract near Annapolis, adjacent to Sandy Point State Park, has high potential; also 44-acre Fort Monroe near Bay’s mouth in Virginia.

President Barack Obama proclaimed the Bay an official “national treasure” in 2009. It’s time now to walk the talk.

The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, has written many articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay, including Turning the Tide and Island Out of Time. He currently teaches writing and environmental topics at Salisbury University.

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