A two-year federal study has concluded that the Chesapeake Bay ought to become a permanent part of the National Park Service - not through federal ownership of large chunks of land along the estuary, but by continuing the agency's role in a network of parks, museums and other sites.
The recommendation, due for delivery to Congress this fall, calls for making permanent the park service's role as coordinator of the five-year-old Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
The network includes 140 bay-related sites and programs that are run by local, state, federal and nonprofit agencies in five states that contain part of the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed. Without federal action, the agency's role is set to expire in 2008.
The park service has acted as an administrative umbrella for the far-flung network and maintains an elaborate Web site. Under the recommendation, it also would build two educational centers, one at each end of the bay. They would be managed independently with federal funds.
"At its core, this alternative focuses on enhancing the gateway network," said Jonathan L. Doherty, who heads the park service office in Annapolis. "All 140 sites would maintain the same identity. With its partnership system, [the network] has the potential for tremendous reach."
John R. Valliant, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, praised the proposal.
"The gateway concept is sound, it's valid and it's already working," Valliant said. "The bay is such a diverse body of water, with such a diverse population, it's hard to imagine a single national park here."
Costs for the enhanced gateway proposal would include two grants of $2.5 million each for construction of the educational centers. The study did not recommend where they would be built, but agency officials say the ideal settings would be accessible to large numbers of people and transportation, possibly in the Baltimore area and in the Hampton Roads region in Virginia.
"The idea is to show people all the bay has to offer and then get them out to experience it," Doherty said.
The park service, which conducted the study, considered and rejected several other options. They included creating a Chesapeake Bay National Reserve, an area of land and water marked for preservation while fishing, farming and forestry were still encouraged; and establishing a water-based estuary park in an area that included underwater grasses, oyster beds and marsh.