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).


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