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Once Buttoned-Up GOP Congressman Grows Beard, Goes Green

Former Maryland Congressman Wayne Gilchrest is educating kids and adults on the environment through the outdoor school Sassafras Environmental Education Center.

Former Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest points to a field where students planted trees, which helps with water drainage. Capital News Service photo by Lauren Loricchio
Former Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest points to a field where students planted trees, which helps with water drainage. Capital News Service photo by Lauren Loricchio

By Lauren Loricchio
Capital News Service

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.

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.”

In Congress, Gilchrest was well-known for championing environmental causes, often breaking ranks with his party to do so. 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. “It’s important to be aware of climate change because it’s a critical issue."

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. 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.

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