The National Park Service recently catalogued more than 1,100 places in the Chesapeake watershed's six states and the District of Columbia where a person may view the water, swim, launch a boat or fish.
But those spots, spread out as they are over many thousands of miles of river and Bay shorelines, are not nearly enough, the study concluded. In addition, the study noted that there are many miles on some rivers, such as a 60-mile stretch on the James River where there is no access. Meanwhile, the demand continues to grow for public access where people can go to fish, boat, bird watch, swim or just sit and watch the water flow.
Fortunately, there's a good deal of energy going into creating more access. In Maryland, a coalition of boating, fishing and conservation groups, led by the Chesapeake Conservancy, has promoted a bill in the General Assembly that would require the state and local highway departments to include public access when bridges are built or reconstructed.
In most cases, this could be done inexpensively. When bridges are built, the public buys extra land to allow for material storage and space for construction. Why not convert that land to a small area for fishing, parking and perhaps a simple launch space for canoes or kayaks? Imagine being able to get down to the water at nearly every bridge!
In the study, Chesapeake Bay Watershed Public Access Plan, the National Park Service and the watershed states identified more than 300 places where new access could be created. Some of those spots already have limited public use but could be expanded to include new uses; for example, a boat launch could be expanded to include a picnic area or fishing pier. Others are on land owned by a state or federal government. Still, very few of the sites were immediately ready; in fact, only 5 percent of them could quickly be made into good public access sites.
All of this, it seems to me, calls for an active community– and citizen-based effort to increase access. We've seen this kind of effort get results in communities as far north as the Susquehanna's headwaters and all the way down to the James — in places where the Conservancy has worked to add access to the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
For example, at the top of the Chesapeake watershed, near the headwaters of the Susquehanna River, the Otsego Land Trust worked with the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network and private funding to build a launch next to Compton Bridge. The Borough of Jersey Shore worked with the Susquehanna Greenways Partnership to plan a park and launch site on the Susquehanna's West Branch.
On the watershed's southern edge, Charles City County commissioners worked with the Conservancy, Gateways Network and corporate foundations to develop a launch on the James River and add access to a 36-mile section of river.
Meanwhile, on the Rappahannock River, in Fredericksburg, VA, the city's department of recreation worked with the Rappahannock River Association, Chesapeake Conservancy and Gateways Network to build a launch site for canoes and kayaks.
Downstream from Fredericksburg in the small town of Port Royal, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Conservancy and the National Parks Conservation Association have plans for a small boat launch and fishing spot.
It's important to note that public access needs public land. So as we think about expanding access we also need to think about how to pay for land. Pennsylvania and Maryland have programs — Program Open Space in Maryland and the Keystone Fund in Pennsylvania — that set aside money to purchase land for conservation and recreation. These funds need our support. Legislators often think of them as sources of money to pay the government's ordinary bills, rather than special funds created and dedicated for specific purposes. We can help protect them by reminding legislators that these funds were created to give us more access to our great rivers and lands.
During the access study, people told the Park Service that they wanted sites along the region's water trails, particularly the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, where they could safely launch small boats, camp or stop for lunch. The study noted that creating these sites would spur recreation and tourism and provide economic opportunities for communities along the trails. It also noted that creating such sites would require more planning.
Maybe the lesson in all of this is that we who enjoy being outdoors in the Chesapeake region, who enjoy being on our rivers and the Bay, need to keep public officials aware of the need for access, and the need to continue to work for more places where people can swim, boat or simply watch the water.