Motivated by the continual decline in environmental health that began in the 1900’s with the industrial revolution that led to rivers so polluted that they caught fire, and air so choked with smog that a clear day was a rare occurrence, the people of the U.S. put the environment on the front burner. Between 1970 and 1975, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was formed, the Clean Water Act was signed into law, and the first Earth Day celebrated. Also during that time, a fore-thinking scientist that was teaching chemistry at the University of Minnesota turned his attention to wetlands.
In 1972, Dr. Edgar Garbisch returned to the place of his youth, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and founded Environmental Concern – a non-profit dedicated to wetlands. Unlike water and air, two subjects that the public understood and valued as important, wetlands suffered from a legacy of false perceptions. Swamps, bogs and marshes were seen as undesirable components of the landscape good only for conversion to usable land. This perception manifested itself in the wide-spread destruction of millions upon millions of acres of wetlands.
Dr. Garbisch, however, saw wetlands for what they truly are, vital ecosystems that provide a multitude of ecological and social functions that are paramount in maintaining quality of life on this planet. While there were extensive instructions detailing ways to destroy wetlands, no such blueprints existed to reverse the process. Dr. Garbisch’s mission to build wetlands would be a pioneering effort.
The first challenge was to mimic nature. A steady supply of native marsh grasses would be necessary to support any and all restoration projects. No commercial nurseries grew these plants, so Dr. Garbisch had to grow them himself. Out in the marsh, he collected seeds, brought them back to Environmental Concern, and began developing the propagation techniques that are now used throughout the world. After many research projects, and trial and error, the first wetland plants were successfully propagated in Environmental Concern’s glass greenhouse.
As the restoration projects became more sophisticated, the need for more and more plant species increased. Dr. Garbisch met the need through the development of additional propagation and grow-out protocols. Today, Environmental Concern’s native plant nursery, the first of its kind in the nation, grows over 120 different species of native plants. These plants are used in projects as large as the restoration of Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay (600,000 plants), to projects as small as a home landscaping project.
With the necessary plants, Dr. Garbisch set out to build marshes. Many techniques were tried. Some worked, others failed. However, through the age-old process of trial and error, sound practices emerged. The first restoration project repairing a breach in a small Bay island, Hambleton Island, remains a living testament to Dr. Garbisch, affectionately referred to as “the grandfather of wetlands”. Environmental Concern continues to build on this legacy through its Wetland Restoration department that actively restores, enhances and creates wetlands.
Dr. Garbisch understood that knowledge is most effective when shared. To help build the capacity of people to better address the needs of wetlands, Dr. Garbisch added an Education Department. What began as a way to train resource professionals has grown into a multi-faceted program that reaches out to teachers, students, decision makers, and the general public. Environmental Concern’s materials are used in over 40 countries and throughout the U.S. If people were taught to fear wetlands, people can be taught to love wetlands.
Environmental Concern is a dynamic organization that continues to build on the legacy of Dr. Garbisch through innovation and commitment.