Did you know that nature knows no boundaries political or otherwise?
Updated: May 23, 2022
Meet former United States Congressman, Wayne Gilchrest- Program Director and Founder of the Sassafras Environmental Education Center in Kent County, Maryland
“We all breathe the same air.” That credo drives Wayne Gilchrest in his role as an environmental
educator at Sassafras Environmental Education Center in Kent County.
Under the umbrella of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, SEEC serves as an organic, interactive,
living classroom for Gilchrest to share his innate curiosity about nature with younger generations.
Before he settled on the woods along the Sassafras River, Gilchrest braved the battlefields of Vietnam
and paced the hallways of the United States House of Representatives as a former congressman.
His windy path to natural resources education and creating future stewards of the land started on
a dirt road amid chicken and cow farms in New Jersey post World War II. Wayne grew up with six
brothers and a mother with whom he had a strong bond. “I can remember my mother showing us
where Korea was on a globe during the Korean War and teaching us about those kinds of things,” he
After high school, Gilchrest entered the Marine Corps, earning a Purple Heart in Vietnam for his
incredible service to the country. “I loved the Marine Corps and still stay in touch with people I served
with in Vietnam,” he says. But, once out of the service, Gilchrest was looking to work his way around the
country and began in a chicken slaughtering plant in Maine before having an accident and breaking his
leg while driving a truck.
This unintended detour in life led to the beginnings of his teaching interests when a local minister
reached out to him and a few others about forming a Boy Scout troop for juvenile delinquents. “They
were poor, hungry and dirty, and we would take them for outings in Maine,” Gilchrest recalls. Soon
after, he went to college on the GI Bill while working at a gas station and then driving a school bus,
which drew his mind back to education and working with kids. He proceeded to get a teaching degree
and started teaching from New Jersey to Vermont before settling here in Maryland. “I love teaching and
engaging with kids,” Gilchrest says.
However, his passion and mind were drawn to the state of political affairs at the time, and
thinking of the life lessons he learned in Vietnam and the wrong direction the country could be headed,
he threw his proverbial hat in the ring and ran for U.S. Congress. Winning in 1990, Gilchrest served for
18 years, but the call of natural resources education was always beckoning him.
As part of a congressional delegation, one particular trip to Colombia could have been an
ecological omen to Gilchrest. His true calling was when he ran into the renowned wildlife biologist and
entomologist E.O. Wilson sitting alone in a rundown hotel restaurant in Bogota. “He had been in
Colombia at the behest of the government to evaluate protecting endangered species in their rainforest.
We had a great, long conversation,” Gilchrest recalls.
After losing his primary for another term in Congress, he came up “with the wild idea of teaching
K-8th grade kids about the environment.” Gilchrest reached out to DNR Secretary John Griffin at the
time and Robert Etgen, Director of Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, about his idea, and the seeds were
planted for Sassafras Environmental Education Center. He was soon hired as a staffer at ESLC in charge
of environmental education, which happened to be at Turner’s Creek — where Gilchrest has been
happily walking the woods and paddling the waters for over a decade now.
When he saw the woodlands and waterways along Turner’s Creek Road, he just knew it was “a
great place for a school.” He worked with multiple groups, including the Maryland Department of
Natural Resources and county officials, to establish a K-12 educational camp with a theme of agro-
ecology on 1,200 acres along the Sassafras River. “We started with 30 kids in 2009; then it jumped to
about 100. An average year now would be about 2,000 kids,” says Gilchrest.
Each one of those youth he works to reach before they leave SEEC, instilling in them
environmental awareness and appreciation of the land beneath their feet, something that can stay with
them forever. “The blending of all nature’s processes together and observing them firsthand, I think it
garners inside their souls a little better understanding of their place. You can see from start to finish the
confidence they gain not only in the skills that they learned that day, but a new perspective on the
world,” he adds.
All of the students who pass through Sassafras Environmental Education Center are offered a
range of educational opportunities and activities, including water quality testing, afforestation (tree
plantings) and studying pollinators or plant genetics. Bringing science and law down to a community
level, 10th graders learn about the Clean Water Act and interview everyone from a waterman to a
politician to a scientist to understand how the law impacts them.
In Gilchrest’s life experiences, he has learned nature knows no boundaries, political or otherwise.
He passes that on to students at SEEC, including during the multiple tree planting projects done over the
years there. “We’re all here together. So, the trees we planted are breathing the same air the trees
planted in Brazil or Russia or China or anywhere,” Gilchrest explains.
That interconnectedness and sense of ownership and the stewardship that comes with it is
conveyed further when he explains to kids how they can paddle anywhere in the world from Turner’s
Creek. “We’re at the creek in a canoe, you can paddle to India or China or Annapolis,” he says. We all
have waterways and forests that are our responsibility, as well as our recreation, as exemplified by
Gilchrest and his work for the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.
Partners have been a big part of that process, including the Maryland Department of Natural
Resources MD Forest Service supplying tree seedlings/shelters and planting assistance, and Kent County
Parks & Recreation. Kent County Roads does any digging or paving Gilchrest and staff need at SEEC, while the
Public Works Environmental Program assists in numerous ways, particularly hauling compost. In
addition, NRCS pitches in on soil testing there, while the University of Maryland. Agricultural Extension
Office has Master Gardeners that work on the 5-acre vegetable garden with Gilchrest and the kids.
A whole slew of volunteers come down and assist the kids in Sassafras NRMA and at Turner’s
Creek. “We have developed a good cadre of very sophisticated volunteers with big science backgrounds
in all of our activities,” he says. The kids mostly come from Kent County, but they have some from
Queen Anne’s, Cecil counties, and two groups from D.C. come every year.
“It has turned out to be quite a beautiful experience for the kids and me. When you walk through
so many acres of thousands of trees that those precious little jewels, those children planted, they
walked away with not only amazing experiences and knowledge and information but a sense of self-
confidence in their achievements,” adds Gilchrest.
The Honorable Wayne Gilchrest pictured above with MFA President, Joseph Hinson and MFA Executive Director, Elizabeth Hill
Photo Credit: EDWIN REMSBERG PHOTOGRAPHS
Project Support: RURAL MARYLAND COUNCIL
LINKS TO LEARN MORE:
Sassafras Environmental Education Center
Eastern Shore Land Conservancy
Maryland's Forests- Great for the Environment and the Economy
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