Ambitious Plans Would Bring Us to the Watertesttest
In a bold, all-encompassing and optimistic plan, the National Park Service (NPS) has finally brought together all of the players that enjoy the waters creating our great Bay. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Public Access Plan includes Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, New York and the District of Columbia. No prior federal planning efforts for the Chesapeake have attempted anything of this geographical scope.
Yellow perch runs are showing signs of starting, with a few nice fish reported from the Tuckahoe, the Chester and the Choptank. Some crappie anglers are having great success these days on Eastern Shore tributaries and along the Potomac River, but crappie anglers guard their honey holes jealously, so I have little detail to report. Pickerel fishing continues to entertain up in the tributaries on the more pleasant days on both sides of the Bay. The seashore rockfish bite from Ocean City down to Wachapreague is, at times, reportedly awesome.
Light geese, conservation season: thru Feb. 8, then Feb. 11 thru April
Access to and interaction with the Bay and its tributaries are critical factors in the quality of life and well being of the 17 million people who live in the 64,000-square-mile watershed. Access also has a profound effect on local economies and, in the long term, conservation of the Bay itself.
President Barack Obama’s May 2010 Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration Order includes the key goals of maintaining existing public access sites to the Chesapeake Watershed area while adding more than 300 new sites along its streams, rivers and bays by 2025. Given current national economic conditions and the fact that these goals are unfunded at the federal level, this might seem wishful thinking. But you have to give the Park Service credit for its monumental effort.
The Public Access Plan inventories all the current sites (1,150) and identifies potential access areas for all of the states along the extensive 11,684-mile shoreline. Recreational boating, swimming, fishing, hiking, camping and viewing wildlife are all considered essential in this document, which is constantly being updated and modified with new information.
The Plan also focuses on cataloging, among other things, large areas with little or no access for future priorities, identifying public and private sector funding sources, addressing site accessibility and building opportunities for citizen stewardship.
Conferring with Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ representative to the Park Service effort, Lisa Gutierrez, I found my admiration of the task was fully reflected. Unfortunately, my concern about the optimism of the Plan’s goals within Maryland — if not all the states — was shared as well.
DNR has long considered public access to the Bay a top state priority, evidenced by the fact that over half (578) of the entire watershed’s existing 1,150 access areas are located in Maryland. But, Gutierrez said, the current state financial picture allows for virtually no new developments.
The prevailing management philosophy at DNR, at least for the time being, is site maintenance rather than expansion. DNR’s Water Improvement Fund, which pays for access development as well as waterway maintenance, is derived from the tax on the purchase and registration of watercraft in the state. The Fund has fallen more than 50 percent since 2004 and continues to decline. Furthermore, the Army Corps of Engineers has shifted its previous financial support for dredging operations, leaving DNR with significant budget deficits for many planned waterway projects.
Attempts to bolster the Water Improvement Budget by increasing the annual registration fee for boats operating in Maryland (unchanged for over 20 years) met with defeat last year when the bill providing for the fee increases was killed in committee despite general boater support. Thus, DNR has little choice but to focus on keeping current facilities from falling into disrepair and waiting for better financial times.
Economy improvement should raise tax revenues. If and when that comes to pass, the Public Access Plan should prove valuable indeed in guiding, encouraging and monitoring the efforts of the many states that benefit from the natural resource treasures of the Chesapeake watershed.
Until then, we’ll just have to wait and see, and perhaps cross our fingers.
Find the full plan at www.baygateways.net/PublicAccess/Public_Access_Plan_FINAL.pdf.
Public input and suggestions for potential access sites are still being solicited. Find the Park Service’s online tool at www.baygateways.net/AddPA and follow instructions. Future updates of the evolving plan will include this guidance.