Lawmakers in Maryland are pushing for Chesapeake Bay to become a national park entity

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WASHINGTON— The status of the Chesapeake Bay could be boosted by legislation introduced this summer to designate the region as a national recreation area.

The Chesapeake National Recreation Area Act, sponsored by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, and Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, would allow the National Park Service to monitor the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which covers 60,000 square miles in six areas States extends and Washington, DC

“We know that the Chesapeake Bay is a national and a global treasure,” Van Hollen said in an interview with Capital News Service. “We believe that by adding this national treasure to the National Park Service system, we will ensure it will continue to be protected well into the future.”

Efforts to establish a Chesapeake National Recreation Area date back to the 2000s, when a study called for the bay to become a unit of the National Park Service. This year’s legislation also comes amid attempts to mitigate the deteriorating health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and efforts to highlight lesser-known parts of the bay’s history, including the contributions of Native Americans and Black watermen to the ecosystem and economy.

The bill was created through a “unique process,” Van Hollen said. In 2021, unusual for most lawmakers, he and Sarbanes formed a working group to solicit feedback on what the legislation should look like.

The bill is currently in committee, but Van Hollen said a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is “determined to get it over the finish line by the end of this congressional session.”

Currently, the Park Service manages certain sites in the watershed, including those designated as national monument units. The Chesapeake Gateways Program, created by federal law in 1998, allows the Park Service to collaborate with and provide assistance to local and regional organizations operating in the Bay Area.

But lawmakers are demanding that the park service play a larger and more managerial role, especially as it seeks to tell previously unknown stories about the watershed’s residents.

“Right now there is no organization whose mission is to help tell the stories of the Chesapeake Bay,” Van Hollen said. “If you look at the Chesapeake Bay, its history is in many ways a microcosm of our American history…so there are all kinds of stories.”

For Maryland residents like Vincent Leggett, whose families have been involved in these stories for generations as avid fishermen, shipbuilders and longshoremen, the bill offers the promise of highlighting history that has previously been overlooked.

Leggett is a member of Blacks of the Chesapeake — an organization dedicated to highlighting Black history in the watershed — and was part of the working group for the bill.

“I believe African Americans have been the backbone of the maritime and seafood industry here in the Chesapeake Bay region, but our stories have not been highlighted or brought to light through our own voices,” Leggett said.

Leggett hopes that expanding the park service’s reach in the region will also involve these populations in bay protection. Only 7% of the state’s bay shoreline is open to the public, he said, creating a “feeling of alienation” among people of color in the region who cannot participate in the cleanup effort.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, the lead organization for bay conservation and restoration, there are 1,296 public access points to the body of water in the six watersheds and in Washington, DC

If passed, the bill would authorize the park service to manage additional landmarks in the Chesapeake Bay watershed – a move Van Hollen said would further improve public access to the bay.

Blacks of the Chesapeake has worked with state and federal lawmakers in Maryland on several projects along the bay, Leggett said, including planning a heritage park at historic Black Elktonia Beach in Annapolis and ensuring Black history is highlighted at Whitehall Manor built by enslaved individuals. Some of these sites, if acquired by the Park Service, could become highlights of a Chesapeake National Recreation Area.

Proponents of the bill also touted the legislation as an opportunity to create jobs and strengthen Maryland’s economy.

“By designating a unified national recreation area for the Chesapeake Bay, this legislation aims to highlight the regional stories that have shaped our nation’s history, promote the spirit of stewardship, improve public access and economic growth throughout the Bay Region to boost,” Sarbanes said in an email to CNS.

Lawmakers have predicted that converting the watershed into a park service entity will boost tourism in the region and increase its already important role in the Bay States’ economy. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, recreational boating in Maryland generates an average of $2.03 billion and 32,025 jobs per year, and wildlife viewing trips generate over $600 million per year.

Leggett said the bill is an opportunity to promote these industries while raising awareness of the Bay’s integral role in the region.

“I think that by bringing more attention to the Chesapeake Bay, there will just be so many millions of dollars, job opportunities and tourism generated,” he said. “I think if we make an effort to improve the water quality of the bay, it will promote fishing, it will promote cultural tourism and all the related businesses that surround it.”


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Jason Chambers

What's up? I'm Jason, your reliable source for breaking news coverage. From politics to tech, count on me to provide up-to-the-minute updates that matter.

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