Parks are great. They offer is peace and relaxation, and they help us protect and study our natural resources. But parks, like any sort of cultural boundary, become limited when examined on a larger scale. For example, people know that Paris is the capital of France, and that France is its own country defined by the boundaries given to it by people. Yet, in its natural and cultural history, France’s boundaries, like many places, become less defined. In fact, those boundaries can stifle efforts to preserve natural and historical resources that, politics aside, are directly connected with one another.
So let’s head to a new kind of park. A park where the boundaries are set based on the idea of an ecoregion. An ecoregion is a land or water area that has similar traits in its topography and life. For example, the Rocky Mountains, or the forests of the northeastern United States, are all somewhat similar despite unique political boundaries.
By the middle of the 1980s, people were beginning to become concerned about the rapidly declining state of the Chesapeake Bay. The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary (the interface of smaller bodies of water, such as a river, meet with a larger body of water that has a different water chemistry such as an ocean) in the United States, and is perhaps one of our most ecologically diverse ecoregions. The bay and its watershed encompasses over 64,000 square miles of forest, mountains, cities, and industrial lands across parts of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and all of Washington, D.C. (see Figures 1 and 2) (US EPA, 2010). Please note that the watershed includes parts of the region that are a great deal of distance from the actual bay itself, as shown in Figure 2A. That means both natural and human forces directly affect the bay anywhere within the watershed.
Figure 2: The Chesapeake Bay and its watershed cover a wide range of landscapes. (A) Even in places way up in the mountains, natural and human activities directly affect the bay. (B) The watershed also has many urban areas (photo by Andrii Cherniak) but also includes (C) forests, (D) tidal marshes and basins (Photo by Robert Palmer), (D) industrial lands, and (F) meadows and agricultural fields.
Because this one ecosystem encompasses so many boundaries, the only way to restore the bay from all of the pollution and development it had been enduring was to connect people and give access to the Bay’s resources. One single park with a nature trail or a museum could not do that for an area that has millions of people living in it. They needed to go beyond the classic idea of a park. Today, the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network links up dozens upon dozens of parks, nature preserves, recreational areas, museums, historical sites, and business districts. These parks and and historical areas are owned and managed by various government and non-government agencies in a network administered by the National Park Service.
This new sort of take on a park, in the form of a network, has helped to increase the environmental quality of the bay, as well as sustaining the economic vitality of the region. From historic site-seeing, marine fisheries protection, bird habitat, and sustainable economics, this diverse ecosystem offers us a chance to learn from the past, live peacefully in the present, and feel confident about the future.
US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA). (2010). Chesapeake bay compliance and enforcement strategy. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/compliance/civil/../chesapeake-strategy-enforcement.pdf