Congressional working group to explore designating a Chesapeake National Recreation Area

Maryland congressional leaders announced a working group that will consider establishing a National Recreation Area for the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The recreation area would be managed by the National Park Service, which proponents say would make additional resources available for conservation and recreation in the bay area.


It could be anchored by a new visitor center, for instance, said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who will lead the working group alongside Rep. John Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats.

“Just as you go to other national parks, you have the visitor center,” Van Hollen said. “It’s sort of a central place where people can come to learn more about the bay — both the ecology of the bay and the history of the bay.”


The working group will “collaborate over the coming months to consider legislation that would designate the National Recreation Area and release it for public comment,” according to a news release from Van Hollen’s office.

The group also includes Maryland and Virginia lawmakers and officials, plus representatives from environmental groups, sportfishing and commercial fishing groups, and educational organizations.

Some of the biggest discussions will center on where visitor facilities could go, and establishing the boundaries of the recreation area, Van Hollen said.

John Reynolds, a board member of the Chesapeake Conservancy, which has led a campaign to designate the recreation area, said there have been talks about setting up two visitor centers — one for the northern Chesapeake Bay and another for the southern portion — in Annapolis and Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. From there, visitors could be directed to a number of different parks and historical areas surrounding the bay, Reynolds said.

“In Annapolis, you might be guided to go towards Sandy Point State Park, you might be guided to go to Blackwater Refuge,” Reynolds said.

The National Park Service already coordinates the Chesapeake Bay Gateways, a list of parks, wildlife refuges, museums and historic sites near the bay. That list includes some National Parks Service sites near the Chesapeake, like the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic and State Park in Cambridge.

But this designation would expand and strengthen that list, placing a new Chesapeake Bay destination on the map, Van Hollen said.

“I know there are a lot of families — and I’ve done it myself — they go on the internet and they look for the different parts of the national park system,” Van Hollen said. “And right now, the bay, which is a unique national treasure, is not part of that national system.”


The idea has been tossed around for years. In 2004, for instance, the National Park Service conducted a study evaluating possible paths forward for the Gateways program, and the possibility of establishing a Chesapeake Bay national park.

Last year, in a letter to Van Hollen and Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan voiced his support for the recreation area.

“A Chesapeake Bay National Recreation Area would provide an incredible opportunity to showcase Maryland’s significant cultural, environmental, historical and natural resources, and provide an international platform for the State of Maryland and the broader Chesapeake Bay watershed,” Hogan wrote in his letter.

At times, discussions have petered out, but the working group is likely to reignite them, Reynolds said.

“A Chesapeake National Recreation Area would be a land-based, 21st century park, uniting new and existing National Park Service sites and trails, as well as partner parks, to increase public access to the Bay and to create a national park worthy visitor experience for all to enjoy,” Chesapeake Conservancy President and CEO Joel Dunn wrote in a statement.