NOAA releases updated sanctuary plan for Mallow’s Bay
Could now include 52 square miles instead of 18
Charles County may soon be recognized on a national level for Mal- lows Bay if it is desig- nated a national marine sanctuary by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Since October 2015, NOAA has completed environmental impact studies, land surveys and other examinations to see how much of the area needs to be designated and protected as a sanctuary.
On Friday, NOAA released its draft
environmental impact statement to the public along with more information about a new preferred alternative derived from public comment that would expand the bay’s sanctuary area to 52 square miles of the Potomac River rather than the 18 proposed a year ago.
Sammy Orlando, a regional coordinator for NOAA and a spokesman for the national sanctuary program, said coming up with a preferred alter- native is the hardest part of the process because of all the different factors.
“There are a lot of considerations that go into it and it’s really a combination. But the most important is what is the federal action and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Orlando said. “We wanted to create a shipwreck site to relay the cultural assets and features of that region. The second part is the exploration of options. What are the options we have to achieve that? One way was through public comment.”
Many comments that were received from the public were requests for boundary expansions and newly discovered shipwrecks.
According to NOAA’s report, Mallows Bay, located in Nanjemoy, “boasts a diverse collection of nearly 200 known historic shipwrecks dating back to the Civil War.” There are also archaeological artifacts dating back 12,000 years.
The currently selected preferred alternative includes more than 100 known and potential shipwrecks as well as sites related to Native Amer- ican culture, the report said.
The northern boundary included in that plan would ex- tend near Ben Doane Road in Maryland to Possum Nose, Va. The southern boundary extends from the end of Ow- ens Drive to Benny Gray Point. The area includes both known and potential shipwrecks.
In the 18 square mile alter- native, the sanctuary boundaries would just extend to the length of the Mallows Bay registered historic district.
It is important to understand, Orlando said, that the boundary extension does not apply to any areas on land and only covers the area of the Potomac River. Anything that was done on land prior to any designation would remain the same, he said.
Charles County Commissioners’ President Peter Murphy (D) called the bay a “hidden jewel” in Charles County and said it has been for a centur y. Now, he said, it is something everyone in the area can enjoy.
“Thanks to President Obama’s marine sanctuary nomination, we will be able to share this with not only our residents but with new visitors to the county who will be able to explore and experience first-hand the heritage of our nation,” Murphy said.
County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said Mallows Bay being designated as a sanctuary is one of the things he is more excited about in 2017 for Charles County.
This year will be the centennial year of the United States’ entry into World War I. Get- ting the designation for the bay, where many shipwrecks from the war remain still, makes the designation more special, he said.
“It’s definitely unprecedent- ed territory for us,” Robinson said.
Robinson said it “made a lot of sense” to expand the area from 52 miles from 18 miles because “that will ensure that all of these wrecks are protected forever.”
Before the designation is announced, he said, the county is going to open up an information center by the end of April to commemorate the anniversary of World War I. The information center will be open somewhere in Indian Head.
“We’re looking at several sites,” Robinson said. “And likely on 210.”
Once the sanctuary is designated, the county will open a visitor center in the western portion of the county as well. The visitor center will not be on the sanctuary, but will be within a 10-mile range of it.
Now that the presidential election is over, Robinson said he hopes President-elect Donald Trump (R) will come down and assist the county with cutting the ribbon to open the sanctuary.
The first public meeting on the bay is scheduled for March 7 at the Charles County Government Building in La Plata. The public comment period opens immediately and will remain open until March 31.
Once the public comment period closes, Orlando said NOAA, the state and the county government will begin to review the entries and modify, “if needed,” he said, documents that are out for review. The process will likely not be completed until at least a year’s time has passed, he said.
“That process typically takes about a year. We want to do the right amount of listening and consider the options that are offered back up to us,” he said. “It takes about a year to two year’s time.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) said the bay is a treasure to the county and something that probably could not happen today.
Hoyer, Sens. Ben Cardin (DMd.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) all released a joint statement on NOAA’s release of the draft environmental impact statement and proposed rule for expansion.
They are encouraged, the statement said, that the process continues to move forward and are looking forward to the business impact behind the sanctuary. They are also looking forward to input from the community in the coming months, the statement said.
“We will be working with NOAA to make sure the public fully understands the need for and impact on the ground of this designation and has their questions addressed,” the statement said.
More than 100 shipwrecks are in Mallows Bay in the Potomac River off the west coast of Charles County. The area is now undergoing federal review to become a national marine sanctuary.