A healthy bay means a healthy economy

The Chesapeake Bay has been called a “national treasure” by president after president for good reason. More than just the economic, cultural and historical heart of Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay and its entire watershed is vital to the nation.

This is no exaggeration from a hometown boy. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimates that the bay is worth $1 trillion in related fishing, tourism, property values and shipping activities alone.

For those of us in Maryland who live and breathe the Chesapeake Bay, this may not be news because we know firsthand the importance of protecting our backyard. It’s why I recently introduced a package of bills with Democratic and Republican colleagues that invests more than $100 million annually to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay. This bill is critical because it targets the most recent major threat to the bay’s health.

No, the latest threat to the Chesapeake Bay does not come from greater pollution, dead-zones or a natural disaster, but from President Donald Trump and his White House.

President Trump sent a deliberate message to Congress by zeroing out initiatives like the Chesapeake Bay Program in his 2018 budget. By reauthorizing these programs, Congress is sending our own clear message back: These programs are important and must be funded. We will not take “no” for an answer.

This bipartisan package of bills, called the Hunting Heritage and Environmental Legacy Preservation (HELP) for Wildlife Act (Senate bill 1514), provides bipartisan pushback against the Trump administration’s attempts to marginalize critical bay programs by putting some muscle behind established federal partnerships.

Among its provisions, the HELP for Wildlife Act pumps up the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program with a five-year reauthorization at $90 million per year — more than the program has ever been funded. This unique regional partnership helps local, state, federal and nongovernmental collaborators achieve the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Agreement signed in 2014. Congress says loudly and clearly that state-federal partnerships are valued and work well.

The bill also reauthorizes two other programs with dedicated funding for the Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network and the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Grants Assistance Program provide $6 million per year in technical and financial assistance to state, community and non-governmental partners to increase access to the bay and its tributaries. The United States’ largest conservation granting organization, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) is also reauthorized for five more years. In recent years, Maryland received nearly $19 million for private-public conservation projects, in part through NFWF’s Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund.

The HELP for Wildlife Act also includes funding provisions for two other environmental programs and officially establishes a third. Reauthorized through 2022, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act provide funding to projects that restore and protect critical wetlands and bird habitat, including the Baltimore oriole. As Marylanders, we know healthy wetlands filter our water, protect our shoreline from storm surges and provide habitat important to commercial fishing and recreation.

Upstream from the wetlands, rivers and tributaries will be more easily rehabilitated through codifying the National Fish Habitat Partnership, another successful collaboration between public agencies, nonprofit organizations and private citizens.

Some provisions in this package of bills are controversial — particularly regionally specific pieces. In a year in which it has been challenging to get pro-environment bills moving, I am pleased that there is such strong bipartisan support for Marylanders and the Chesapeake Bay.

The HELP for Wildlife Act has already received support from many Marylanders and dozens of national and local organizations. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said the bill is “the strongest legislative package of sportsmen’s priorities in years.” The Chesapeake Bay Foundation testified last week in the Environment and Public Works Committee to communicate just how important this bill is to Maryland and to the entire bay watershed.

A healthy bay means a healthy economy, and a complete Chesapeake Bay recovery cannot be accomplished without a strong, bipartisan, federal commitment. The more than $100 million dedicated to Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay in the HELP for Wildlife Act is just that.

Ben Cardin, a Democrat, represents Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay in the United States Senate; he is a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Twitter: @SenatorCardin.

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