Program Offers Wonders Of Chesapeake Bay, And Access, To National Park And Outdoors Lovers

Along its thousands of miles of shoreline, across its wide waters, and within its secluded backwaters, the Chesapeake Bay watershed offers a rich and diverse playground, one that should become easier to navigate thanks to a campaign launched in conjunction with the National Park Service's release of its Chesapeake Bay Watershed Access Plan.

Currently, it can be hard to find access points for recreating in the watershed, whether you're looking to paddle a kayak or canoe, fish, take a hike, or spend a hot summer day cooling off in the bay's waters.

To hurdle that problem, the National Parks Conservation Association has organized watershed partners from Baltimore City to Anacostia Watershed Society down to James River Association to coordinate a response to this issue -- the campaign is called Freedom to Float.

"We will be working together in the coming months to fund/build/support public access locations for paddling, swimming, fishing, hiking, etc. throughout the watershed and particularly in the neighborhoods that lack a connection with nature," explains Edward Stierli of NPCA.

“The Chesapeake watershed is home to iconic historical and natural treasures, but long stretches of the thousands of miles of shoreline are inaccessible,” he adds. “Connecting communities with nature and expanding access will help protect our lands and waters for healthy outdoor recreation including boating, fishing, hiking, camping, and birding.”

The Chesapeake watershed features dozens of units of the National Park System. It's tendrils of creeks, streams and rivers connect a landscape that spans Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. In recent years, Congress designated two new national trails connecting land and water in the region: the Captain John Smith Chesapeake and the Star-Spangled Banner national historic trails, which commemorate Smith’s exploration of the Chesapeake in the early 17th century and the War of 1812.

President Obama issued an Executive Order in May 2009 calling for the creation of 300 public access sites in the Chesapeake by 2025. Freedom to Float will promote and build additional multiple-use access sites to enable new and diverse communities to enjoy the natural wonders of the Chesapeake.

Access to the water is important to small businesses, as well as to avid boaters and anglers, throughout the watershed.

“By improving access, we can help increase awareness about the condition of the bay and promote new stewards for its restoration," said Ralph Heimlich of Chesapeake Paddlers, Inc.

Recreation and tourism in the Chesapeake fuels the region’s economy. National parks in the Chesapeake recorded more than 54 million visitors in 2010, which contributed to more than $1.5 billion in spending and supported more than 20,000 jobs. Recreational boating contributed more than $1.3 billion in sales that supported over 11,000 jobs and paid out over $400 million in wages within Chesapeake watershed states. Investing in preserving the landscape and protecting clean water is vital to the region’s economic future.

Building connections with nature is essential to engaging communities in conservation.

“Public access brings communities together in discovering and treasuring the shared resource of their local waterway,” said Whit Overstreet of Potomac Riverkeeper. “Without access, communities become disconnected from their rivers and cease to care about how their river is being treated or what is being dumped into it.”

In Richmond, Gabe Silver of James River Association agrees that “additional public access on the James River means more places to launch a kayak, hike along the river, watch wildlife, and camp. Investing in the river’s water trails will help Virginia’s economy by boosting tourism and improving the quality of life in communities throughout the river corridor."

Freedom to Float partners have deep community roots. The Anacostia Watershed Society has been working to restore a river that serves as “a place of quiet reflection, abundant wildlife, and surprising beauty in the heart of the nation's capital,” says spokesman Brent Bolin. “Increasing and promoting access to natural resources in urban areas improves the physical and mental health of local populations, benefits the local economy, and provides a sense of stewardship and pride to communities adjoining the resource," he said.

“It’s easy to forget that cities are part of a watershed when you can’t see rivers and streams,” added Joanna Ogburn from the Chesapeake Conservancy. “Providing opportunities to access the bay in an urban setting helps reinforce the idea that all of our actions influence the condition of the Chesapeake.”

Partners will be working together to expand access in diverse communities. “Public access to our urban parks and water resources is invaluable to our citizens’ quality of life and key for sustaining a healthy watershed,” said Molly Gallant of Baltimore City Parks & Recreation.

“Every day we can introduce more people to this region’s wonderful rivers and streams,” said Hedrick Belin of Potomac Conservancy. “We look forward to working with the National Park Service and Freedom to Float partners getting folks outdoors in a canoe or with a fishing rod to experience these waterways.”

The group is seeking volunteers to take part in on-the-ground access site construction, conservation volunteer events, and in advocacy on the local, state, and national levels for policies to promote access. For more information for how to get involved and take action, visit: www.freedomtofloat.org

Freedom to Float partners include the Anacostia Watershed Society, Baltimore City Parks and Recreation, Chesapeake Conservancy, Chesapeake Paddlers Association, James River Association, National Parks Conservation Association, Potomac Conservancy, and Potomac Riverkeeper.