It’s so big that it can be seen from space — 11,684 miles of shimmering shoreline, equaling the distance of the entire West Coast, from Mexico to Canada. But in this boiling-hot summer, good luck trying to get your boat or your body into the refreshing waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
Only 2 percent of the bay has public access points for kayaks, canoes, fishing, bathing and other recreation. And some of those places are so packed with visitors on sunny weekends that motorists are forced to drive away or wait until someone leaves.
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.
About 17 million residents live in the Chesapeake Bay region — Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and the District. Each state drafts a periodic Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, known as a SCORP, that has shown that people want more paths to streams, rivers and the bay.
A 2011 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report by the nonprofit Outdoor Foundation showed a 33 percent increase in kayaking, paddle-boarding and wind surfing in 2010 over the previous year. A similar survey that year in Virginia found a 70 percent increase in canoeing and kayaking over the past five years.
But a 64-mile stretch along the southern bank of the tidal James River, for example, has no regularly open access sites. “And there are long stretches of the Rappahannock, Potomac, Susquehanna, Nanticoke and other rivers, as well as the shoreline of the Bay where the public has little or no access to the water,” according to the Chesapeake Bay Public Access Plan drawn up by the Park Service last year.
In some urban areas such as the District, there are seven-to-15-mile stretches where people can’t get to water. The result: trespassing, a lack of concern about the region’s storied American Revolution and Civil War history, and apathy about eco-tourism.
Stierli is worried. “The Park Service has been moving along, but a lot of it comes down to funding . . . and the Park Service is underfunded and have limited funds for a lot of these access sites.”
That’s not entirely true, said Davy of the Park Service. Working with states and nonprofit groups is helping the Park Service develop access points at a steady pace, he said. Davy expressed optimism about reaching the goal of 300 new sites in 16 years.
“We provide technical assistance; sites are built by partners through our partner relationships,” he said.
Lofton and several companions weren’t willing to wait for the state or federal government to burn a path to a beach in a county surrounded by water.
In “some of the best locations, the county requires you to get a permit” to walk a beach, Lofton said. The 30-day permits rival those for “immigration into the U.S.,” Lofton said, because of the details required to complete them. “They’re very discouraging,” he said.
Walking on the county’s Beverly Triton Beach required a permit until recently, Lofton said. The requirement was dropped after he and his associates complained.
Opening Jack Creek to the public took more planning, he said. A committee was formed to draw up a proposal for a modest parking lot that “could be created without a lot of complex permitting,” said Lofton, who is on the West-Rhode Riverkeeper board.
The winding path to the beach through brush isn’t for the faint of heart, with all the bugs along the way. But it’s worth it to Lofton.
“I routinely see bald eagles,” he said. “It is a gorgeous sight.” Too many people might scare away the eagles, so the county should spread them out. “We clearly need lots of places like this,” Lofton said.
That won’t be easy for the Park Service, a county or any government agency. Farmland that dominated the region is being sold to developers, who are building pricey houses and selling them to wealthy residents.
Homeowners frown on trespassers, who sometimes talk loudly and leave trash. On the other hand, Lofton said, the bay and its tributaries belong to the people.
“They’re concerned about their quality of life; they’re protective of it. I can understand a concern about more people and more boats being overwhelming,” Lofton said.
But “it’s the public’s property. You’re darn right. And we paid for it with flush fees and storm-water fees,” he said. “Doggone it, if you’re going to make everybody pay, then everybody should benefit.”