Sen. Van Hollen, Rep. Sarbanes Push to Form Chesapeake National Recreation Area

Senator Van Hollen and Representative Sarbanes recently introduced bipartisan legislation to create a Chesapeake National Recreation Area. 

Late last month, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen and Congressman John Sarbanes introduced legislation to create a unified Chesapeake National Recreation Area (CNRA). The bill proposes to unite a series of voluntarily contributed park areas and iconic Bay properties under the operation of the National Park Service (NPS) in order to provide more federal resources for environmental conservation, celebrate the Chesapeake’s diverse cultural and economic history, foster sustainable and equitable access to the Bay, and spur economic growth in the watershed region. Today’s introduction follows a nearly six-month-long comment period on the draft legislation that the lawmakers unveiled last fall, during which Bay watershed residents and stakeholders were invited to share their input on the plan. The effort to establish a CNRA is supported by a wide array of over 100 stakeholders spanning local elected officials, environmental and historical preservation groups, economic development organizations, racial justice advocates, seafood and outdoor recreation businesses, and many more. State and local elected officials who have voiced their support for this effort include Maryland Governor Wes Moore, former Governor Larry Hogan, Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, and State Senator Sarah Elfreth, among others. More than 60 letters from public officials and organizations have been submitted in support of the CNRA proposal; they can be viewed here.

Senator Chris Van Hollen

Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes were joined in introducing the legislation by 15 of their colleagues: Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Mark Warner, and Tim Kaine (both D-Va.) and U.S. Representatives Don Beyer (D-Va.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Glenn Ivey (D-Md.), Jennifer McClellan (D-Va.), Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.), David Trone (D-Md.), and Rob Wittman (R-Va.).

“The idea of creating a Chesapeake National Recreation Area isn’t new – it’s been discussed for over four decades. But today we’re moving that vision one big step closer to reality. After two years of working together with folks across the Bay – from residents, to environmental advocates, to local officials in Maryland and Virginia, to those who make their living from the bounty of the Bay – today’s introduction of bipartisan Chesapeake National Recreation Area legislation is a significant milestone toward bringing greater national recognition and opportunities to the Bay we cherish,” said Senator Van Hollen. “We’re grateful to the thousands of individuals who shared their thoughts with us on how to make the original proposal even stronger. This feedback not only helped us make sure this bill responds to community needs, it also revealed deep, diverse, and widespread support for what we seek to accomplish by creating this CNRA. We’ll be working hard to get this bill passed in order to mobilize sustainable federal support for Bay restoration, generate more prosperity for those whose livelihoods depend on a vibrant Bay, spotlight its unique story and place in American history, and encourage greater public access to and enjoyment of everything it has to offer.”

Congressman John Sarbanes

“The Chesapeake Bay is an unrivaled natural resource and national treasure that is invaluable to our region and beyond,” said Congressman Sarbanes. “By designating a unified National Recreation Area for the Chesapeake Bay, we are elevating the regional stories that shaped our nation’s history, promoting the spirit of stewardship across the watershed, investing in our economy and protecting the Bay for future generations. I am grateful to the thousands of individuals who have engaged with us over the last several years to help shape this legislation to reflect the priorities of Maryland residents and communities across the watershed. I look forward to the continued collaboration of federal, state, local and private partners as we work to pass this legislation.”

Text of the legislation can be viewed here.

How the CNRA would work:

Broadly, the CNRA would consist of NPS sites and “partner sites” – park areas on the Bay that currently exist and voluntarily “opt-in” to participate in the CRNA. These would be an official part of the visitor experience and would benefit from National Park Service branding and resources. Participation in the CNRA is completely voluntary and partner sites would not be owned by the National Park Service. The first historic sites of regional importance proposed to be in the CNRA network include Burtis House, Whitehall, and Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse in Annapolis, Maryland; and the North Beach of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.

This designation will not impose any additional regulations on recreational or business activities in the Chesapeake Bay waters, and the National Park Service’s authority will not supersede state authority on these matters.

The CNRA will broaden public access to the Chesapeake Bay and strengthen the culture of stewardship across the region. Additionally, the CNRA will highlight the stories that often go untold – those of Indigenous peoples; free and enslaved Blacks; the role the Bay played in the earliest days of the Maryland and Virginia Colonies; the key part the Bay has played, and continues to play, in the region’s economy; and the story of watermen and -women who are essential to the economic success and health of the Bay region. Everyone who resides in the watershed has an important role in Bay conservation and culture.

More details about this initiative can be viewed at

Support From County Leaders for the CNRA:

“I am thrilled to join my fellow local, state, and federal elected officials to support the creation of the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, which provides a pathway for better preservation and better access to the Chesapeake Bay,” said Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman. “Greater public access would boost our local economy, increase residents’ understanding of our shared history, and underscore our collective duty to protect and preserve this national treasure.”

“The Chesapeake National Recreation Area will tell the stories of the nation’s largest estuary and one of the world’s largest environmental restoration efforts, including the people and communities that have been essential to it,” said Baltimore City Mayor Brandon M. Scott. “Baltimore has always made the Chesapeake Bay a central part of our draw as a destination, whether it be our Inner Harbor, our best in the world seafood, or our proximity to some of the most beautiful waterways in the country. Creating the Chesapeake National Recreation Area will just further solidify the Bay as one of our great treasures, aid our efforts to protect it, and strengthen local businesses across our great city.”

“The Chesapeake region features an incredible array of rich historic and cultural resources, and improving and expanding our parks for their exploration and enjoyment is a priority for us in Baltimore County,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski. “I fully support and appreciate Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes’ efforts to establish a Chesapeake National Recreation Area as a unit of the National Park Service to preserve and promote the natural and recreational amenities which make Baltimore County, and by extension, the entire Chesapeake Region unique.”

“The collaborative nature of the CNRA is commendable. By leveraging partnerships between the National Park Service, states, and localities, the CNRA ensures that existing sites and resources are put to the best use in safeguarding the Bay’s delicate ecosystem. Furthermore, by highlighting the diverse groups of people living around the Chesapeake Bay, the CNRA will foster an inclusive approach to conservation that respects and cherishes the region’s rich cultural heritage,” said the Charles County Board of Commissioners.

“This thoughtful and carefully crafted legislation is a win for everyone. It is a smart investment of federal resources that will directly benefit Maryland economically, environmentally, and culturally, while adding the treasure of the Chesapeake as an asset of the National Park System,” said Frederick County Executive Jessica Fitzwater.

“Howard County’s proximity to the Chesapeake Bay is part of our identity and we remain committed to responsible, environmental stewardship. As our country’s largest estuary, the Bay deserves the protections and increased federal resources that would come with the Chesapeake National Recreation Area designation,” said Howard County Executive Calvin Ball.

“I strongly encourage Congress to pass the authorization creating the Chesapeake National Recreation Area – the nation’s largest estuary and one of the world’s largest environmental restoration efforts,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. “We in Montgomery County are proud to support this effort and appreciate the advocacy and leadership of Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes and the rest of the Maryland Congressional Delegation to improve the environment, economic development, and quality of life for all Marylanders. The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure and deserves the respect and recognition this designation will provide.”

“We are proud to support legislation that would create a Chesapeake National Recreation Area, helping us protect, preserve, and celebrate the Chesapeake Bay. Designating a Chesapeake National Recreation Area would also boost our regional economy while increasing access to this important area for local residents and visitors from across the country. A national recreation area would be historic for Maryland, and we look forward to working with our federal partners to help tell the story of the Chesapeake Bay,” said Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks.

Background on the Initiative to Establish a CNRA:

The concept of the Chesapeake National Recreation Area has been discussed as far back as the 1980s, spurred by an op-ed in the Capital Gazette and work by Anne Arundel County Executive Jim Lighthizer and followed in the 1990s by the efforts of Senator Paul Sarbanes. Driven by Senator Sarbanes, in 2004, the National Park Service (NPS) released a special resource study which found that the Chesapeake Bay is ‘unquestionably nationally significant and a major part of the nation’s heritage.” Shortly after his election to the Senate, Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes began discussing the possibility of a designated Chesapeake National Recreation Area. In 2019, the lawmakers began working on the effort requesting drafting service from NPS to pursue a national recreation area designation for the Chesapeake Bay. The effort has garnered widespread bipartisan support, and in 2020, then-Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and then-Virginia Governor Ralph Northam shared their backing of the concept in letters to Congress. Senator Van Hollen and Congressman Sarbanes continued to pursue the effort, and in 2021 formally announced a Working Group to foster further discussion with stakeholders and community members on the project. Then in June 2022, the lawmakers released a set of guiding principles to serve as a foundation for the draft proposal, followed by a discussion draft bill for public comment in November 2022. The introduction of bipartisan, bicameral legislation is the next significant milestone in this historic process.

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