IT'S often said, and true, that even the best efforts to repair Chesapeake Bay can never restore the place as it was when Capt. John Smith first explored and charted it in 1607.
Indeed, Smith's words, "Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation," have come almost to haunt us.
Human inhabitation of the bay's six-state watershed grew to about 8 million between 1607 and 1950, then nearly doubled, to 15.7 million during the past 50 years. About a million more each decade are projected to swell the ranks.
Encouraging settlement to tame the wild land was a main goal for Smith. Nowadays we strive to protect from development what natural and rural landscapes remain.
And there's a grand vision making the rounds that could someday prove as bold a stroke for restoring the Chesapeake as John Smith's voyage was for putting it on the world's maps.
To celebrate the coming 400th anniversary of Smith's journey through the Chesapeake, Patrick F. Noonan, founder of the Conservation Fund, wants Congress to establish a Captain John Smith National Water Trail.
For canoeists, kayakers and small-boat sailors, it would link the watershed's thousands of miles of bay and river shores, which wind from New York to Norfolk, from Washington and Richmond to Salisbury and Chestertown.
It would expand public access -- only 2 percent of the Chesapeake waterfront is open to the public.
Given the growing popularity of water trails nationwide, it might eventually become part of a watery Appalachian Trail, a recreation corridor extending from Maine to Florida.
Right now it's only an idea, but the man and the organization behind it have a record for making big things happen. Noonan and the Arlington, Va., based Conservation Fund have protected 3.4 million acres nationwide since 1985. In the Chesapeake watershed alone, the fund has protected about 200,000 acres.
Recently, the Conservation Fund was a key player in two of the most spectacular land protection efforts in Maryland history -- the 58,000-acre Chesapeake Forest and the 27,000-acre Glatfelter deal, which kept Eastern Shore commercial forestland from going the way of development.
"I've been spending my life running around America doing land deals. It doesn't get any better than right here in the Chesapeake. So why not devote myself to working in my own back yard," said Noonan, 65, a Maryland resident.
The national water trail idea comes at a fertile time for thinking large about the future of the Chesapeake landscape. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, has introduced Conservation Corridor legislation, aimed at preserving farmland across a broad swath of the Delmarva Peninsula.
The latest Chesapeake Bay federal-state restoration agreement sets a goal of permanently protecting an additional 1.1 million acres of open space in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland by 2010.
The National Park Service is preparing recommendations to Congress for a Chesapeake Bay National Park. Of the options it's considering, the best may be the one that, like Noonan's water trail, would not preserve a single, large chunk of land as in traditional parks.
Rather, it would build on the existing Chesapeake Bay Gateway network set up by Congress a few years ago at the behest of U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat. The present gateways legislation is just a first step, handing out about $1.4 million a year to enhance information and access, including water trails, to 135 participating bay and river towns around the watershed.
But the gateways concept casts a watershed-wide net -- about 10 million visitors a year come through its sites already.
If the Park Service were to build on this, embracing the Captain John Smith National Water Trail, great things could follow.
With a unifying theme like a trail linking the watershed, the focus could easily expand beyond recreation, to restoring the Chesapeake's water quality by protecting the open spaces around it.
The science is irrefutable that greener shorelines equal cleaner water -- also that wherever we lose the natural landscape along streams and rivers, water quality is never as good. "Long term, more land protection is absolutely the goal of all this," says Charles Stec, an aide to Sarbanes.
Noonan sees the John Smith National Water Trail as leading the way to "a new generation of American parks," linked to encouraging stewardship of natural resources, with a focus on environmental benefits that go well beyond traditional park service aims.
Such a trail could be the catalyst for a host of innovative land protection measures that depart from the concept of acquiring a block of land in one location.
Noonan talks about public-private partnerships, as in the Glatfelter deal; about preserving working landscapes (farms and timbering); about developing transferable tax credits that would let landowners who aren't rich enough to use tax breaks for preserving their land sell the rights to investors who could.
Right now they're all mostly ideas. But the ingredients are there, and the timing seems right. The trail and gateways concepts could unify the growing number of citizens groups, frustrated by slow progress at state and federal levels on improving the bay, who are forming their own watershed organizations and hiring "river keepers" to patrol local waters.
Just look what the captain's original voyage started. Now it's time for the same bold, new thinking to keep this place fit for habitation.