Maryland, Virginia Lawmakers Spearhead Drive to Make the Chesapeake Bay a National Recreation Area

The bay is the nation’s largest estuary and rich in history. It is also threatened by climate change and, the recreation area proponents say, in need of resources.

Aerial of a boat traveling through Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore, Maryland. Credit: Edwin Remsburg/VW Pics via Getty Images

Aerial of a boat traveling through Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore, Maryland. Credit: Edwin Remsburg/VW Pics via Getty Images

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Almost four decades after President Ronald Reagan called the Chesapeake Bay “a national treasure” in 1984, a group of lawmakers, environmentalists and watermen is at work on legislation to make coastal sites along the vast estuary parts of a national recreation area managed by the National Park Service.

“We are close to seeing a draft in the upcoming month,” said Reed Perry, manager of external affairs at the Chesapeake Conservancy.

The group, convened in March by Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. John Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats, envisions that the Chesapeake National Recreation Area would be similar in design to California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area with its 37 separate national park sites across 80,000 acres in California. Chesapeake National Recreation Area would have national park facilities in Annapolis, Maryland, and Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, anchoring a series of additional park sites in both states. 

Van Hollen said in announcing the working group that designating a Chesapeake National Recreation Area would “bring new resources to protecting the bay and to generate new opportunities to grow Maryland tourism and outdoor recreation.” 

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In an interview, Van Hollen said that addressing the impacts of climate change would be essential to protecting those who live in coastal areas. “We’re already experiencing rising sea levels in places like Annapolis, which is already negatively impacting small businesses,” he said. “We’re seeing parts of Maryland go underwater because of sea level rise.”  

The nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake is 200 miles long from its northern headwaters in the Susquehanna River north of Baltimore, through the Potomac River in Washington, to its southern mouth in Virginia between Cape Charles, across the bay from Hampton, and Cape Henry, north of Virginia Beach.

As such, it provides a critical first line of defense against the impacts of climate change—sea level rise, extreme weather, flooding, warming waters and ocean acidification—for the coastal areas of both states. 

“Wetlands can help to mitigate some of those effects, but they are also threatened by sea level rise,” William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment in 2019. “As we have noted, these important filters reduce the level of pollutants entering the bay, help protect against flooding by absorbing stormwater and protect coastal communities from storm surge and erosion.”

But wetlands inundated with salt water from sea level rise, Baker noted in his testimony, “begin to disappear.”  

Joel Dunn, president, and chief executive officer of the Chesapeake Conservancy, a leading advocate for the designation, has said that the Chesapeake National Recreation Area “would not be one continuous locale,” but a series of land-based sites that “celebrate the many stories of the Chesapeake from those of American Indians, to Black history, to watermen, just to name a few.” 

If Congress makes the Chesapeake National Recreation Area a formal part of the National Park Service, it will offer visitors a chance to experience water-based outdoor activities, such as swimming and kayaking, fishing and boating. The working group is talking to all the stakeholders, he said, including those from Maryland and Virginia and “everybody from the environmental community to the boating industry, to the seafood industry, to all the folks who rely on tourism.” 

Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, also sit on the working group, along with organizations as diverse as the Oyster Recovery Project, Black Watermen of the Chesapeake, Latino Outdoors, the Baltimore Tree Trust and the Shellfish Growers of Virginia. 

Perry, the Chesapeake Conservancy’s external affairs manager, envisions downtown Annapolis, Maryland’s colonial-era capital and home of the U.S. Naval Academy, as the central northern hub of the national recreation area, with a visitor center and a gateway waterfront park.

“A big focus of this is to improve and enhance the public’s connection to the Chesapeake Bay,” Perry said in an interview. 

Over 200 miles south, in Hampton, Virginia, he said, “areas at Fort Monroe that provide outstanding access to the bay” would benefit tremendously from the added resources that would come through the national recreation area designation.

Fort Monroe, an existing National Park Service national monument, marks the place where the first enslaved Africans arrived in August 1619 in what was then called Point Comfort in Virginia. 

The stone fortress was completed in 1834 as part of the nation’s third series of fortifications. It remained in Union hands during the Civil War and won acclaim as an early place of freedom for former slaves. More than a century later, it served as the home of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command from 1973 to 2011, when President Barack Obama signed its designation as a national monument. 

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The Chesapeake Bay, Perry said, is both an ecosystem and a historical monument to many diverse cultures, including the African American community and Indigenous Powhatan, Piscataway and Nanticoke peoples, whom he said have “the deepest history of any community here in the bay.” 

Beyond telling the bay’s human history, Perry said the national recreation area designation would further conservation efforts, which began in earnest in the 1980s. Telling the story of the restoration movement, he believes, could inspire future generations of environmentalists.

But the climate clock is ticking. In his House testimony, Baker, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that nearly 170 communities in the U.S. will be “chronically inundated with flooding” in 20 years—with 70 percent in Louisiana and Maryland. 

“Sea level rise threatens to inundate small coastal communities and major cities alike in the Chesapeake Bay Region,” he said. “Entire inhabited islands are now underwater in the Chesapeake Bay, with more likely to follow if greenhouse gas emissions do not decrease substantially.”