Former Congressman Hopes to Raise Environmental Awareness With Education

Capital News Service

KENNEDYVILLE- After 18 years of rubbing elbows with politicians in Washington, former Republican congressman Wayne Gilchrest has returned to his roots as an educator, building bamboo fishing poles with students on the Eastern Shore.

The once clean-shaven, suit-clad Republican congressman has transformed into an outdoorsman — bearded, dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans.

A cardboard box full of animal bones and skulls, found by his students, sits in the bed of his black Toyota pickup truck. He spends his days hiking, canoeing and fishing on a stretch of more than 1,000 acres of public land.

Gilchrest, 67, serves as director of a Kennedyville outdoor school called the Sassafras Environmental Education Center, an education division of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, where he teaches children environmental literacy. He opened the school after losing his congressional seat in 2008 to a more conservative opponent, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville.

Gilchrest has been running the center, in an old brick house called Knock’s Folly, for nearly three years. The building has a history dating back to the 18th century and overlooks Turner’s Creek, a tributary of the Sassafras River.

When he was still a member of the House of Representatives, he would take homeless kids and school trips out to the area he calls, “an inspirational place.”

“He was probably the greenest Republican in Congress. When he left Congress I was,” said Roscoe Bartlett, a former Republican congressman who represented western Maryland.

In Congress, Gilchrest was well-known for championing environmental causes, often breaking ranks with his party to do so. He endorsed President Barack Obama when he ran for office in 2008, and recently endorsed state Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Takoma Park, a liberal Democrat running for governor.

He was co-chair of the Congressional Climate Change Caucus and served as chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Task Force.

“I didn’t use my political party’s tradition to interfere with my view of the world,” Gilchrest said.

His time in politics opened his eyes to a lack of environmental awareness among those making public policy, he said.

“Many people, who were very smart — working in government — had no frame of reference to environmental issues,” Gilchrest said. “And the other thing was that they felt indifferent to environmental issues.”

The politics of climate change are problematic, said Gilchrest.

“These [politicians] making public policy don’t know what they’re talking about for the most part,” he said, adding, “They don’t know how the ecology works. They don’t know the science behind climate change. Sadly, they don’t want to know.”

Gilchrest’s face reddened, when he spoke of Harris, who ousted him from office in a 2008 GOP primary.

“He held a series of public hearings and town meetings around the 1st District, in which he was trying to debunk the science of climate change,” Gilchrest said, with a hint of animosity in his voice.

“It’s important to be aware of climate change because it’s a critical issue,” Gilchrest said.

“If you have an educated public, they’re not going to be duped by [Fox News television commentator Sean] Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or some politician,” Gilchrest said.

“You know the public is looking at this as a wild and crazy time,” Gilchrest said. They don’t know what to believe, because they aren’t able to sift through all the rhetoric, he said.

“The fundamental problem with the planet today is ignorance in almost any avenue or issue that you come across,” he said.

Gilchrest aims to educate the children who visit the center how they can be “compatible with nature’s design,” in an effort to make them better citizens in the future.

Since 2011, Maryland teachers have been required to teach eight environmental literacy standards in the classroom. Gilchrest’s program is one way to meet that requirement.

The kids participate in outdoor activities planned by Gilchrest and center staff, like planting trees and monitoring their growth over time.

“This is real hokey. But, it’s also a fact,” Gilchrest said, looking out at an empty corn field, near a bluff that overlooks the Sassafras River,“When they come out here, they feel that they’re not treated any different from [other kids]. They’re all the same. And they not only get that from us. They get it from the trees, the eagles, the water and the snakes.”

The children who participate in the program are mainly from Kent County public schools. But private schools and schools from other counties have also planned trips to the center.

While the program is new, Jaime Belanger, education program manager at the center, said she has witnessed a change in the children’s behavior.

“It’s a foreign world to them at first, but after experiencing the outdoors, they become more comfortable. As a result they’re more observant of things they didn’t notice before,” Belanger said.

Someday, Gilchrest and Belanger would like the center to become Kent County’s outdoor school.

“An ideal path would be a way of making ourselves and what we’re offering sustainable, so that it’s embedded in the [public school system] and has funding,” Belanger said.