A new way to save our ecosystems

The America's Great Outdoors report, introduced by President Barack Obama last week, is a bold promise to strengthen Americans' connection to their greatest treasure: their waterways, forests, fields and urban parks.

The plan would better target conservation dollars; coordinate federal, state and local programs; and fully fund the nation's primary source for conservation, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, with $900 million from gas and oil drilling royalties. It would use that fund not just for the conservation of grand natural features such as Yellowstone National Park, but for the development of new urban green spaces, the conservation of working ranches, farms and forests; the expansion of public access to the nation's rivers and new watertrails called blueways; and the restoration of major ecological systems.

Fortunately for us, the Chesapeake Bay is noted both as a place where conservation should be focused and as an example of models worth supporting.

The report recommends that conservation dollars be targeted to support major ecosystems. It notes that federal projects are under way to restore and conserve large-scale aquatic ecosystems in the Chesapeake Bay, the Everglades, the Great Lakes, the Gulf Coast, the California Bay-Delta, the Mississippi River Basin and Washington's Puget Sound. We at the Chesapeake Conservancy fully support this idea. The health of the water is directly tied to the health of the land. But beyond this issue of water quality, what would the Chesapeake be without its sweeping salt marshes or its landscapes of working farms and small towns?

You will see this connection if you are fortunate enough to seize a day this spring and get out on one of the region's many rivers. You will be amazed how quickly you find long miles of wooded shoreline. On many of the rivers that feed the Chesapeake, you'll find historic sites and natural wonders all within the space of a few miles.

Unfortunately, many people do not have access to our rivers or the bay. Public landings and waterfront parks are very limited. This need for more access was strongly voiced in many of the more than 50 listening session held by the America's Great Outdoors team. In response, they recommended that we begin a National Recreational Blueway Trails Initiative.

This trail system, which would be built based on local nominations and supported by the land and water conservation fund, would provide a focus for conservation of landscapes and historical sites, and it would expand access to the water. Rivers have long provided their towns with economic benefits. More access would encourage the growing popularity of kayaking and canoeing. More conservation of historic, cultural and natural features would increase opportunities for tourism. The blueways would create corridors of connection that would be as valuable to wildlife as to urban life.

The Chesapeake, the report notes, provides a national example: the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. Already, towns around the Chesapeake are connecting to this, the nation's first national historic water trail. Places as separate as Reedville, Va., and Perryville, Md., see the trail as an economic benefit and a way to reconnect to history. The trail is one big blueway, creating corridors for recreation up all the bay's major rivers.

The challenge will be to create partnerships to bring the America's Great Outdoors promise to fruition. We will need collaboration among communities, nonprofit organizations, businesses and government as we build the next century of American parks and create recreational access, restore our big ecosystems and conserve landscapes.

Already, groups such as the Chesapeake Conservancy are hard at work. The conservancy, under its former name of the Friends of the John Smith Chesapeake Trail, helped bring the new trail to life. Since then, the group has collaborated with individuals, towns, regional organizations, states and federal agencies to expand access and conserve critical landscapes along the bay and rivers.

The administration's America's Great Outdoors plan deserves strong support. When implemented, it will greatly benefit the people of our region, and the people of the nation.

Charles Stek is chairman of the Chesapeake Conservancy. His e-mail is charliestek@gmail.com.

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