The development of farmland and sales of private homes, combined with the deterioration of aging public docks and ramps, have blocked access to the bay and its rivers and streams from the general public.
“I call it the world’s biggest gated community, the Chesapeake Bay. There are probably 100 beaches in Anne Arundel County, but they are private beaches,” said Mike Lofton, a retired economic development executive and an activist for bay access whose efforts helped open a public beach at Jack Creek Park, south of Annapolis, last week. “For the general Jack and Jill, there’s no other beach to go to.”
Realizing that lack of access would also turn people away from concerns about the health of the nation’s largest estuary and cradle for much of the Atlantic Ocean’s marine life, President Obama issued an executive order three years ago to build 300 access points by 2025 — to complement slightly more than a thousand that exist in the bay watershed — but progress is slow.
The National Park Service has teamed with governments in the Chesapeake Bay region, including Maryland, Virginia and the District, to fund and construct about 30 water-access points, said John Davy, outdoor recreation resource planner for the Park Service.
Nonprofit groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association, Potomac Riverkeeper and West-Rhode Riverkeeper also are pushing for ways to get people to the water.
The conservation association launched Freedom to Float in January to encourage residents to paddle the transportation and communication corridors of Native Americans and American colonists, and walk historic trails such as the Captain John Smith Chesapeake and Star-Spangled Banner national historic trails.
“We’ve been saving the bay from pollution for years, and it’s hard to get people invested in saving the rivers if they can’t get to them,” said Ed Stierli, the association’s landscape conservation fellow for national parks in the Chesapeake.
Access to the bay and its tributaries is a larger issue than people just wanting to get their feet wet. A National Fish and Wildlife Foundation study two years ago found that recreational power boating generated nearly $33 billion in revenue nationwide and $5 billion for the Chesapeake Bay region’s economy.
A 2006 study by the Active Outdoor Recreation Economy found that paddle-based recreation — canoes, kayaks and such, along with fishing — have a national economic value of $97.5 billion.
On a more basic level, impoverished anglers across six states rely on the fish they catch to feed their families, said Pam Goddard, Chesapeake and Virginia program manager for the association.