WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin joined Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Congressman John Sarbanes (all D-Md.) along with state and local officials, economic leaders, watermen, advocates for conservation and others to release draft legislation to create a unified Chesapeake National Recreation Area (CNRA). The lawmakers’ proposal would unite a series of National Park Service (NPS) owned and operated park areas and visitor centers, as well as iconic Bay properties contributed on a voluntary basis, to create a unified national recreation area that would provide more federal resources to the watershed region to celebrate its diverse cultural and economic history, conserve this environmental treasure and foster public access to the Chesapeake Bay while spurring economic growth.
Along with today’s discussion draft release, the lawmakers announced the opening of the public comment period on the draft text and will encourage community members to share their thoughts and input on the plan. The comment period will remain open for 90 days to ensure robust public engagement.
“One of the main goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement is increasing public access to the Bay’s resources. The draft legislation being announced today would help do just that,” said U.S. Senator Ben Cardin. “By establishing the first organized designation of National Park Service sites in the Chesapeake Bay, the Chesapeake National Recreation Area will provide a network of access points so people can better interact with the Bay, providing opportunities for learning and connections with special places around our watershed.”
“After years of work with our committed partners who treasure the Bay and its bounty, we are proud to present a proposal that will spotlight its unique story and historical significance, generate more prosperity for those who make their livelihood from it, leverage more federal investment, and encourage greater public access to the Bay’s beauty and cultural landmarks,” said Senator Van Hollen. “The release of this discussion draft is just the beginning – we look forward to continuing our engagement with all community stakeholders to get their input on how we can build on this foundation to create a Chesapeake National Recreation Area to achieve our goal of bringing national recognition and greater opportunities to our Bay region.”
“The Chesapeake National Recreation Area will elevate the collective consciousness and appreciation for the Chesapeake Bay. By combining sites that embody what the Bay means to Marylanders, our region and our country with the expertise of the National Parks Service, this project will direct more resources to the Bay, improve public access and promote environmental stewardship,” said Congressman Sarbanes. “Public engagement has been a hallmark of this undertaking so far. Today’s announcement is the product of great collaboration and creativity among the Chesapeake Bay leaders and Members of Congress in our working group. Senator Van Hollen and I are grateful for their continued input, and we look forward to incorporating the public comments into our draft legislation. Alongside our guiding principles, these comments will help inform our decisions and create a National Recreation Area that lifts up this cherished national treasure.”
“When we can get out onto the water, it strengthens our connection to the Bay. When we are connected, we understand the long-term investments necessary to conserve and protect it,” said Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley. “I am grateful for the partnerships that will help us realize the potential of a connected Chesapeake National Recreation Area.”
This discussion draft legislation was developed through collaboration with NPS and the working group that Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes convened last year, and in alignment with the ten guiding principles laid out in June. In accordance with those principles, the CNRA would consist of NPS sites and “partner sites” – park areas on the Bay that currently exist and additional voluntarily “opt-in” participants – would be an official part of the visitor experience and would benefit from National Park Service branding and resources. Participation in the CNRA is completely voluntary and partner sites would not be owned by the National Park Service. This designation will not impose any additional regulations on recreational or business activities in the Chesapeake Bay waters, and the National Park Service’s authority will not supersede state authority on these matters. The first historic sites of regional importance proposed to be in the CNRA network include Burtis House, Whitehall Manor, and Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse in Annapolis, Maryland; and the North Beach of Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads, Virginia.
The CNRA will increase diverse public access to the Chesapeake Bay and strengthen the culture of stewardship across the region. Additionally, the CNRA will highlight the stories that often go untold – those of Indigenous peoples; free and enslaved Blacks; the role the Bay played in the earliest days of the Maryland and Virginia Colonies; the key part the Bay has played, and continues to play, in the region’s economy; and the story of watermen and -women who are essential to the economic success and health of the Bay region. Everyone who resides in the watershed has an important role in Bay conservation and culture.
The lawmakers are now accepting public comment on the proposed CNRA legislation and map. Those interested in more closely reviewing and providing feedback can do so at https://www.vanhollen.senate.gov/cnra.
The lawmakers were also joined by Chesapeake Conservancy President & CEO Joel Dunn, Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation Founder and President Vince Leggett, and Blue Oyster Founder Johnny Shockley, along with several members of the lawmakers’ CNRA working group – all of whom played an important role in shaping the draft legislation.
“This is a great day for the Chesapeake Bay. Through national parks, monuments and recreation areas, the National Park Service recognizes and honors some of the most cherished landscapes in our nation. The Chesapeake Bay is just as spectacular as Yellowstone or Yosemite. It is as great as the Great Smoky Mountains and as grand as the Grand Tetons. Thank you to Senators Van Hollen and Cardin and Representative Sarbanes for your support of the Chesapeake, our nation’s largest estuary,” said Chesapeake Conservancy President & CEO Joel Dunn.
“For the past 30 years, we have been identifying significant African American people, historical events and communities along the reaches of the Bay, such as the recently acquired Elktonia-Carr’s Beach property in Annapolis. This land conservation and heritage preservation project has become the “gold standard” for public-private partnerships on the Bay. The passage of the CNRA legislation will allow us the produce a string of rare “Black Pearls” to tell a more complete story about African American contributions to maritime and seafood related industries historically and even up to today. We needed to get all stakeholders engaged in improving the water quality of the Bay, specifically engaging minority, under-served, non-traditional, and limited resources people and communities in the mammoth undertaking. Together, we can and will celebrate the natural and cultural diversity within the Chesapeake region,” said Vince Leggett, Admiral of the Chesapeake Founder and President of Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation.
“Making the Chesapeake watershed a National Recreation Area is the right thing at the right time. The restoration of the Chesapeake will be a collaborative and unified approach that will need an element of celebration, passion, love of nature, and Bay culture. The waterman community will provide generations of invaluable knowledge and resolve to help see the job done. Through this designation, we will see our Chesapeake Bay flourish ecologically and economically in the years to come,” said Johnny Shockley, Founder of Blue Oyster and Hooper’s Island Waterman.
“Four of the six states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed do not have a National Park, and yet the Chesapeake Bay is an undisputed national treasure. A Chesapeake National Recreation area can address this void. It can help us celebrate the people and the history of this absolutely great place,” said Ann Swanson, Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
Background on the Initiative to Establish a CNRA: The concept of the Chesapeake National Recreation Area has been discussed as far back as the 1980s, spurred by an op-ed in the Capital Gazette and work by Anne Arundel County Executive Jim Lighthizer and followed in the 1990s by the efforts of Senator Paul Sarbanes. Driven by Senator Sarbanes, in 2004, the National Park Service (NPS) released a special resource study which found that the Chesapeake Bay is ‘unquestionably nationally significant and a major part of the nation’s heritage.” Shortly after his election to the Senate, Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes began discussing the possibility of a designated Chesapeake National Recreation Area. In 2019, the lawmakers began working on the effort requesting drafting service from NPS to pursue a national recreation area designation for the Chesapeake Bay. The effort has garnered widespread bipartisan support, and in 2020, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam shared their backing of the concept in letters to Congress. Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes continued to pursue the effort, and in 2021 formally announced a working group to foster further discussion with stakeholders and community members on the project. Then in June 2022, the lawmakers released a set of guiding principles to serve as a foundation for the draft proposal. The release of the discussion draft for comment is the next significant milestone in this historic process.
Full list of CNRA working group members: Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Representatives Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Rob Wittman (R-Va.), and Elaine Luria (D-Va.); the State of Maryland; the Commonwealth of Virginia; Chesapeake Conservancy; the Chesapeake Bay Commission; the National Parks Conservation Association; Choose Clean Water Coalition; the Conservation Fund; the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; Maryland League of Conservation Voters; Nature Conservancy; Potomac Conservancy; REI; the National Trust for Historic Preservation; the American Sportfishing Association; the National Marine Manufacturing Association; the Watermen of Maryland; the Sport Fishing Commission; Historic Annapolis; Oyster Recovery Partnership; Blue Oyster Environmental LLC; Preservation Virginia; Shellfish Growers of Virginia; the James River Association; Virginia Interfaith Power & Light; Marine Trades Association of Maryland; the Audubon Naturalist Society; Living Classrooms; the Hispanic Access Foundation; Latino Outdoors; Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project (SERCAP); Chispa Maryland; Baltimore Tree Trust; Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, Clean Chesapeake Coalition, Verna Harrison Associates, Maryland Department of Natural Resources Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission; the National Aquarium; Morgan State University Patuxent Environmental & Aquatic Research Laboratory; and The Wilderness Society.