It’s Time for the Chesapeake National Recreation Area

Big, beautiful, bountiful, diverse, historic, majestic.

When we think about our national parks and the many special places of the National Park System, these are words that often come to mind. Big, beautiful, bountiful, diverse, historic, and majestic are also words that perfectly describe our nation’s largest estuary: the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay is a natural wonder. There is an abundance of life in the Chesapeake, where freshwater from rivers and streams mingles with saltwater from the Atlantic. The Chesapeake Bay is one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, and its tributaries, wetlands, and forests are home to amazing and diverse species.

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Today the Chesapeake is recognized as a national treasure and the region’s greatest natural and cultural asset.  Tourism and nature-based recreation are among the drivers of an economy serving a population of more than 18 million people. Outdoor recreation thrives here, as exemplified by Maryland, which reports $14 billion in consumer spending and 109,000 jobs, and by Virginia, reporting nearly $22 billion in consumer spending and 197,000 jobs generated by outdoor industries.

The Chesapeake Bay is woven into the fabric of our nation’s history. Its waters flow through the cultural identities of the many people who call the Chesapeake their home. The moments of life found here—watermen tending to crab pots at sunrise, an osprey making an acrobatic dive for a fish, a quiet paddle on a creek—rival those found anywhere else in the world.

It’s no secret that the Chesapeake Bay is also in trouble. For 40 years, partners have been working tirelessly to address pollution challenges that harm the waters and wildlife of the Bay. However, the monumental effort to restore the Bay, which involves government at all levels, universities, nonprofits, advocacy groups, and everyday people, is a feat in its own right. The story of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort is one that must be widely shared to educate the public and to inspire the next generation of conservation stewards who will restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay.

There’s yet another important descriptor of our national parks: worthy. National parks represent places and landscapes worthy of protection and celebration. When places are included as units of the National Park System, the experiences and stories of these places are elevated on a national and international scale. National parks show the world how a singular place represents an essential part of the total American experience.

The Chesapeake is big, beautiful, bountiful, diverse, historic, majestic, and—yes—worthy. It’s time for the Chesapeake National Recreation Area. Join us to establish Chesapeake National Recreation Area and help to forever protect the Chesapeake Bay.

[1] Outdoor Industry Association, Advocacy, last accessed 7/23/2020.



The Chesapeake’s headwaters begin as far north as Cooperstown, New York, and west to Blacksburg, Virginia. The Bay’s watershed stretches over an enormous area of 64,000 square miles, crossing through six states and the District of Columbia. The Bay itself extends nearly 200 miles north to south and 30 miles at its widest point. It spans a gradient of aquatic habitats, from freshwater at the Susquehanna River to brackish water to saltwater at the mouth of the Bay in Virginia.



The scenes and picturesque moments of life found on the lands and waters of the Chesapeake Bay are stunning. From the quiet creeks of the Eastern Shore to the mighty rivers, to the Bay itself, the natural beauty found here is extraordinary.



There is an abundance of life found in the Chesapeake Bay and its waters, making it one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. The Bay’s iconic species include the blue crab, oysters, striped bass, menhaden, sturgeon, ospreys, bald eagles, blue herons, and there’s so much more wildlife to be found here. The Bay is also an economic driver for the region, and outdoor recreation in Chesapeake Bay states generates tens of billions of dollars each year.



The Chesapeake Bay and the lands and waters that make up its watershed provide diverse ecosystems for the variety of life found here: forests, wetlands and marshes, rivers and streams, beaches and tidal flats, aquatic reefs, open and shallow water. There is also great diversity in the people and cultures who have shaped the communities of the Chesapeake Bay. This diversity of habitats, cultures, and experiences offers endless opportunities for Chesapeake discovery and enjoyment.



Much of our nation’s deep history, founding, and rise took place right here in the Chesapeake: paramount chief Powhatan’s center of leadership at Werowocomoco; Captain John Smith’s voyages and famously accurate map; the Jamestown Colony, the arrival of ships of enslaved Africans; the founding of the nation’s capital on the Potomac; battlegrounds of the American Revolution, War of 1812, and Civil War; and Harriet Tubman’s heroic journeys to freedom, just to name a few. Throughout the Chesapeake region there are gateways to the places and stories of America.



Two US presidents, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, have declared the Chesapeake Bay a national treasure. National Park Service resource studies state that the Chesapeake Bay is “unquestionably nationally significant.” Since 2003, the National Park Service has had a Chesapeake Bay office working to connect people to experiences of the natural and cultural heritage of the Chesapeake. Indeed, the natural beauty, ecological and cultural diversity, and rich history of the Chesapeake make this place nothing short of majestic.



The Chesapeake Bay is worthy of inclusion in the National Park System!



Evolution of the National Park Service in the Chesapeake Bay

Photo by Chesapeake Bay Program


Following a five year study sponsored by Senator Charles “Mac” Mathias (R-MD) to assess the significant declines in aquatic and terrestrial wildlife of the Chesapeake Bay, the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement is adopted. The 1983 Chesapeake Bay Agreement affirms that the degradation of habitat and the substantial loss of wildlife in the Chesapeake requires a cooperative approach involving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the State of Maryland, the Commonwealths of Pennsylvania and Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The Chesapeake Executive Council is formed, consisting of the signatory states and the EPA, to address pollution and species decline in the Chesapeake.

Photo by Pete Souza/Public Domain


The Chesapeake Bay emerges as one of President Ronald Reagan’s signature environmental priorities during the election year of 1984. In his 1984 State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, President Reagan states, “Though this is a time of budget constraints, I have requested for EPA one of the largest percentage budget increases of any agency. We will begin the long, necessary effort to clean up a productive recreational area and a special national resource – the Chesapeake Bay.”1 Reagan later tours the Bay in the summer of 1984.


The Annapolis Capital Gazette publishes an editorial titled, “Chesapeake Bay National Park is a good idea.” The piece comments on an initiative led by County Executive Jim Lighthizer to explore the possibility of a Chesapeake Bay National Park and link together existing parks and natural sites throughout the Bay. The editorial states, “The point is that a Chesapeake Bay National Park is no more far-fetched than the Cape Cod National Seashore, or Acadia National Park in Maine, or the Smoky Mountains National Park along the Blue Ridge…We think that a Chesapeake Bay National Park is an excellent idea. It would bring access and use of the bay under one of the best federal agencies in the country, the National Park Service.”

Photo by National Park Service


The National Park Service signs an MOU with the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program to actively support and participate in the Chesapeake Bay Program by providing public access to the Chesapeake and by conserving and interpreting the natural and cultural resources of the Chesapeake Bay.

Photo by NPS/Middleton Evans


Congress passes the Chesapeake Bay Initiative Act to establish the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network and the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Grants Assistance Program. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD), empowers the National Park Service to provide assistance to local communities, nonprofits, and other organizations to conserve, restore, and interpret recreational, historical, and cultural resources of the Chesapeake at Gateways “sites” throughout the Chesapeake.

Photo by Matt Wade


At the request of Congress, the National Park Service completes a Special Resource Study on the Chesapeake Bay. The Special Resource Study finds that the “Chesapeake is unquestionably nationally significant and a major part of the nation’s heritage which the National Park System strives to represent and interpret.”2 The Special Resource Study calls for the Gateways program to be made permanent, and states that “a unit of the National Park System encompassing one or several of these alternate concepts could make a significant contribution to the protection and public enjoyment of the Chesapeake Bay.”3

Photo by National Park Service


Congress passes a law to designate the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the nation’s first water-based national historic trail. The Trail follows the routes of Captain John Smith as he explored the Chesapeake Bay between 1607 and 1609, and includes many of the Bay’s major rivers as well as the Bay itself.

Photo by Pete Souza. Dec. 6, 2012


President Barack Obama issues Executive Order 13508, establishing that the Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure as the largest estuary in the United States and one of the largest and most biologically productive estuaries in the world. The Executive Order outlines an enhanced federal role and agency cooperation on the Chesapeake Bay, and an enhanced strategy to reduce pollution and improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, conserve landscapes and ecosystems, and expand public access. The Executive Order results in a new strategy to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Photo by Jerry Edmundson


The Department of the Interior forwards to Congress the Chesapeake Bay Special Resource Study completed by the National Park Service. In his letter to Congress, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Thomas L. Strickland highlights two principal findings of the Special Resource Study: 1.) “A unit of the National Park System encompassing elements of the park, reserve, and preserve concepts meets NPS criteria and would make a significant contribution to the protection and public enjoyment of the Bay” and 2.) “The Gateways Network should be enhanced and made permanent with an ongoing funding commitment.”

Charlie Stek, Chesapeake Conservancy board member and former senior staffer to U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes, pens an op-ed in the Chesapeake Bay Journal calling for a national park for the Chesapeake Bay.

Photo by Matthew Beziat


Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland and Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia call for legislation to establish a Chesapeake National Recreation Area, as a campaign for this national park unit dedicated to the Chesapeake Bay, building on a decades-long vision, is launched!

Photo by Michael Weiss


U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen and Congressman John Sarbanes (both D-Md.) led a bicameral group of lawmakers and more than 30 regional organizations in forming a Working Group to explore the designation of a Chesapeake National Recreation Area managed by the National Park Service. Many members of the working group had been meeting informally prior to this. Join us to establish the Chesapeake Bay National Recreation Area!

[1] Ronald Reagan, Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union (1984).

[2] National Park Service, Chesapeake Bay Special Resource Study and Final Environmental Impact Statement (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service, 2004, p. 63).

[3] Ibid, (p. vi).


Imagine a 21st-century park—a collection of parks and other public lands in the Chesapeake Bay that bring national and international attention to the Bay’s significant natural, cultural, historical, and recreational resources. Formally connected through partnerships between the National Park Service, and communities and states, these parks would become the Chesapeake National Recreation Area (CNRA) and tell a common narrative about the nation’s largest estuary and one of the world’s largest environmental restoration efforts. This isn’t a new idea for the Chesapeake (see this editorial dating back to 1986), but it is an idea whose time has come.

Hub sites would enable partnerships between the National Park Service and communities and provide access to the Chesapeake Bay and to recreation and educational opportunities. Partner parks, such as state parks and national wildlife refuges, would voluntarily opt-in to the CNRA and benefit from additional resources and branding provided by the National Park Service.

The CNRA would be managed in close coordination with the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, and could also offer connections to other trails such as the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, and the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route.

The formal connection of these hub sites and partner parks, the expertise of the National Park Service, the additional federal resources for conservation and public access, and the influence of National Park Service designation and branding would put the Chesapeake Bay on par with other nationally significant landscapes. Additionally, it would boost national and international support for the protection and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.

It’s time for the Chesapeake National Recreation Area. Join our push to create the CNRA! Sign on as a partner in our effort or donate to fund our work to advance the goal! For more information, contact Chesapeake Conservancy’s Manager of External Affairs Reed Perry at

The National Park System includes 421 individual park units with at least 19 different naming designations such as national park, national historical park, national seashore, and national recreation area, to list a few.  The various names have evolved over time and generally are meant to be self-explanatory such as national battlefield or national lakeshore.  Regardless of nomenclature, these units are all commonly referred to as “parks”.

The 62 units formally designated as “National Parks” contain a variety of “outstanding natural features and ecological resources” and also typically encompass “large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources.”

The title “National Recreation Area” was originally given to reservoir parks managed by the Bureau of Reclamation.  However, the origins of recreation focused parks go back much further to a national program during the 1930s managed by the NPS to establish “recreational demonstration areas” which developed new or expanded recreation opportunities in proximity to major population centers and to support under-represented communities with a deficit of outdoor recreation. For example, within the Chesapeake Watershed during the 1930s Catoctin Mountain Park and Prince William Forest Park were established and are still managed by the NPS today. More modern and well-known examples of national recreation areas in urban centers include Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Gateways National Recreation Area in New York and New Jersey, and Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. These NPS partnership-oriented examples provide urban access to significant historic resources and important natural areas to offer outdoor recreation opportunities for large numbers of people. National recreation areas often explicitly permit boating, fishing, and hunting. There are currently 18 national recreation areas in the National Park System several of which are among the most visited park units across the nation.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States and is one of the most biologically rich and productive water bodies in the world. It has been formally recognized by the National Park Service as nationally significant and has been called a national treasure by both Republican and Democratic US presidents. The Chesapeake Bay is also the focus of one of the largest environmental restoration efforts in the world. Yet unlike other major landscapes in the United States, the Chesapeake Bay does not have a National Park System unit dedicated to the Chesapeake Bay itself.

Established as an official unit of the National Park System, a Chesapeake National Recreation Area would elevate the Chesapeake Bay and bring additional national and international recognition. More importantly, it would bring greater expertise and resources of the National Park Service, the world’s leading park agency, to the Chesapeake Bay and establish more points of public access to the Chesapeake Bay.

Some national recreation areas offer partnership models for how the Chesapeake National Recreation Area can work with already existing public lands to enhance protection and facilitate recreation on Chesapeake landscapes.

Economic benefits

National park visitors make a significant contribution to the nation’s economy and, especially, to gateway communities adjacent to these areas. The National Park Service reports that 327.5 million visitors in 2019 spent $21 billion in local gateway regions while visiting national parks. The national economic impact of this spending supported 340,500 jobs, $14.1 billion in labor income, $24.3 billion in value added, and $41.7 billion in economic output.[1]

Twenty national park units in Maryland and Virginia contributed $1.07 billion to the region’s economy in 2019 and national park units in the District of Columbia added an additional $830 million.[2] National parks and monuments are also among the top four priority destinations for international tourism. Over one third of all international visitors visit national parks and monuments.

The principal economic beneficiaries of park visitation include vendors in the food, lodging, outdoor recreation, and travel businesses. Other local and national firms benefit by providing services or supplies required for operating, maintaining, and sustaining recreation sites and opportunities.

A Chesapeake National Recreation Area would create a major new draw for visitors to the region and make substantial contributions to the region’s economy. Consider, for example, the economic impacts of a set of existing national park units relevant to a Chesapeake National Recreation Area model.

2019 National Park Visitor Spending Effects and Federal Appropriations
Park Unit 2019 Economic Output[3] FY20 Operations Appropriation[4]
Gateway National Recreation Area $287.5 million $26.3 million
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area $43 million $8.9 million
Shenandoah National Park $128.8 million $12.6 million
Cape Cod National Seashore $672 million $8 million
Assateague Island National Seashore $116.8 million $5.6 million
Indiana Dunes National Park $130 million $9.5 million
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park $143 million $9.6 million
Boston National Historical Park $273 million $9.9 million


Additional NPS resources

National Park Service sites have long been recognized for their focus on interpretation—engaging visitors with the many stories and meanings of a place. In recent years, the National Park Service has increasingly focused on conveying the stories of under-represented peoples and communities. The Chesapeake watershed is a diverse landscape, rich with under-represented stories. A Chesapeake National Recreation Area would bring additional resources and capacity, technical assistance, and financial assistance to interpreting these stories at participating sites.

Additional outside investment

National parks heighten the national profile and public consciousness of any place, including one as recognized as the Chesapeake Bay. They broaden the constituency and interest beyond a local or regional scale, because they are national parks. With this comes an increased rationale for investments and commitments to enhance, restore, and conserve resources and visitor experiences associated with the park. This has played out in and around many national parks where agencies, the private sector, and philanthropists have invested in a wide range of projects. Designation of a Chesapeake National Recreation Area would bring an added focus and rationale for investing in participating sites and communities.

[1] Cullinane Thomas, C., and L. Koontz. 2020. 2019 national park visitor spending effects: Economic contributions to local communities, states, and the nation. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2020/2110. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] U.S. Department of the Interior, Budget Justifications and Performance Information Fiscal Year 2021 National Park Service,

This proposal is for a limited, but official and permanent, National Park Service presence in the Chesapeake Bay. The national recreation area model allows for voluntary “opt-in” partnerships with state parks and other already existing public lands that would represent the full Chesapeake National Recreation Area. These existing parks would benefit from National Park Service branding and marketing related to the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, but would retain their existing management and ownership. The National Park Service would enter into partnership agreements to define the responsibilities of each party. In addition, the National Park Service would acquire, through purchase or through donation, parcels that will enhance public access to the Chesapeake Bay and provide the National Park Service a limited land base through which to operate. These National Park Service properties combined with “opt-in” partner parks (state parks, wildlife areas, etc.) would represent the full Chesapeake National Recreation Area.

A Chesapeake National Recreation Area would greatly enhance recreation and businesses based in the Chesapeake Bay. Boating, fishing, hunting, and other recreational uses are part of the Chesapeake’s rich heritage. Commercial fishing is also an important part of the Chesapeake Bay’s economy and heritage, and this would be a celebrated part of the Chesapeake National Recreation Area.

Boating, fishing, hunting, and other recreational uses of the Chesapeake Bay are primarily managed by state governments. The Chesapeake National Recreation Area would not impose any additional regulations on recreational or business activities in the Chesapeake Bay, nor would the National Park Service authority supersede state authority on these matters.

The National Park Service would have authority only on the few parcels under its ownership in the Chesapeake National Recreation Area.

Having an official National Park Service unit would greatly enhance tourism and marketing opportunities, as well as recreation opportunities, in the Chesapeake Bay.

No land would be acquired without the consent of the landowner. Only those landowners who choose to participate would be directly affected by designation. There would be no additional regulations governing non-participating private or public landowners.

Congress establishes national recreation areas through specific enabling laws. These statutes set out the specific authorities of a particular national recreation area. Congress has wide latitude in defining authorities. National recreation area statutes—even for more traditional areas—often allow activities prohibited at national parks, such as hunting, fishing, trapping, etc.

Designation as a national recreation area would NOT impact or otherwise affect statutory authority concerning navigation or regulation of commercial or recreational fishing activities in the Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries.

Designation as a national recreation area would NOT authorize acquisition of private land or interests in land without the consent of the owner.

Congress appropriates funding annually for national recreation areas in the Department of the Interior’s budget for the operations of the National Park Service. The level of funding is based on the scale and scope of the operations. Two relevant partnership-focused examples in the NPS budget for fiscal year 2019 are Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, at $1.1 million, with 16 full-time-equivalent staff, and Mississippi River National River and Recreation Area, which has a budget of $1.7 million and 24 total staff.

To supplement federal funding, management of the CNRA would utilize additional funding tools, including philanthropy, recreation fees  at National Park Service properties, and other revenue sources. Opt-in partners would continue to provide funding for their own sites.

It is the goal of core nonprofit partners to raise private funds to supplement the budget for the CNRA. This funding may come from local and national private sources, such as competitive grants, foundations, and private donors. Achieving national recreation area status typically expands private fundraising opportunities by enhancing the region’s ability to compete for funding from non-local sources.

The proposed Chesapeake National Recreation Area Act would permanently authorize the Chesapeake Gateways program as a part of the CNRA and should include sufficient base funding for management of the Gateways program and the national recreation area.  This would enhance the technical and financial assistance now provided to various state and local agencies and non-governmental organizations.

Legislation that would establish the Chesapeake National Recreation Area should include specific provisions to prevent impacts on military installations, operations, and missions in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The designation of a Chesapeake National Recreation Area would not alter the authority of the Secretary of Defense to conduct military operations at installations and facilities within the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. In addition, this bill would not alter or restrict military overflights over lands encompassed within the boundary of the Chesapeake National Recreation Area. This bill would also not preclude the new designation of special airspace or the use of military flight training routes over lands encompassed within the boundary. We intend to work with the Department of Defense during the development of this National Recreation Area.

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Support our efforts to advance the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, donate today!

You can show your support for the creation of the Chesapeake National Recreation Area!

Brought to you in partnership with REI, The Landmark Project, Chesapeake Conservancy and coalition partners, you can purchase a t-shirt, poster and sticker from 5 participating REI locations:
  • REI Rockville
  • REI Tysons
  • REI Washington DC Flagship
  • REI Timonium
  • REI Columbia
If you can’t make it to a local REI and still want to support the campaign, you can purchase at Show your support as momentum builds to create national park status for the Chesapeake!

Join other CEOs in support of the CNRA!

CEOs for CNRA, working with the Chesapeake Conservancy, is a diverse network of executives leading the call to build support for a CNRA within the business and non-profit community.  We are open to every leader and every organization, big or small, that wants to further the effort to preserve our environment and help bolster our local economies.

2021 Bay Paddle

Thank you to the sponsors of the 2021 Bay Paddle!

Proceeds from this 215-mile, 8-day, staged paddle race founded by Chris Hopkinson benefited two incredible non-profits: Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) and their oyster restoration efforts and Chesapeake Conservancy for the United for a Chesapeake National Recreation Area advocacy efforts!

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