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Original Issue

The man who makes marshes

Wetlands that support invaluable wildlife are fast disappearing, but Edgar Garbisch is turning the tide by creating some of his own

Can a former professor of chemistry at the University of Minnesota create in half a year what it takes nature 1,000 years to accomplish? Yes, at least in the case of Dr. Edgar W. Garbisch Jr. of St. Michaels, Md., who can in six months establish a coastal salt marsh of up to 500 acres.

In their natural state, coastal marshes are extraordinarily productive of clams, mussels, shrimp, crabs, fish, waterfowl, furbearers and other animals. In Louisiana biologists have calculated that a single acre of salt marsh is worth $82,000 in benefits to man. But from the start, settlers in this country have tended to look upon marshes as pest holes to be obliterated. They have been filled to serve as dumps, airport and factory sites, marinas and housing developments—all in the name of progress. Only recently has the public begun to appreciate the economic, ecological and esthetic value of wetlands, and although some states have moved to protect marshes, no one thought of creating new ones to replace the old until Ed Garbisch happened along a few years ago.

Garbisch, who is 43, is new to working with plant life and marine resources. He got his doctorate in organic chemistry from Northwestern in 1961, became an assistant professor at Minnesota in 1964 and within four years was jumped to a full professorship. His field was the arrangement of molecules in space, and he wrote or co-authored more than 40 papers with such titles as "The Hydroxymethylene Ketone-Also Enol Equilibrium." He was invited to lecture at Princeton, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana, Notre Dame and other schools, and there were flattering feelers from universities seeking to lure him from Minnesota. For all this professional success, at the age of 37 Garbisch felt dissatisfied. He had come to regard his work on molecules as a kind of empty intellectual chess. He wanted to do more for the world.

In 1970 Garbisch resigned from Minnesota and went to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. There he happened to read Life and Death of the Salt Marsh by John and Mildred Teal and was tremendously stimulated. A coastal marsh, he learned, yields almost 10 tons of organic matter per acre a year, while the most productive farmlands in the world produce but seven tons of wheat per acre and require extensive fertilization and cultivation. Tidal marshes trap sediments and utilize them for the growth of algae and plants. Like a giant blotter, a marsh has the ability to absorb storm water and serves as a buffer against shore erosion. In some ways marshes are free sewage treatment plants that "scrub" rivers or bays. John R. Clark of the Conservation Foundation has calculated that "a 1,000-acre marsh may be capable of purifying the nitrogenous wastes from a town of 20,000 or more people."

The more Garbisch read, the more enthusiastic he grew about the possibility of creating marshes. In a small experiment, he transplanted some cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) to the beach in front of his house. The plants took root, and so did he in St. Michaels.

Garbisch worked a year for the Nature Conservancy as director of the Center for Applied Research in Environmental Science, and in 1972 he left to found Environmental Concern, Inc., a nonprofit organization of which he is president and director. One of its first projects, which was backed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, was to plant a small marsh on sand islands that suddenly appeared at the mouth of the Susquehanna River after tropical storm Agnes washed thousands of tons of silt downstream. Unless stabilized, these islands were destined to disappear. In June of 1972 he planted cordgrass on a pilot two-acre plot, and by December the new marsh was impressive. So impressive that migrating Canada geese stopped and feasted to the extent of all but destroying the plantings. Garbisch learned that a new marsh must be protected during its first year against "eat outs," preferably with chicken wire. He later demonstrated on Hambleton Island in the Chesapeake that it takes two years to produce a self-sustaining marsh "visually and in most other ways indistinguishable from a natural one."

Shoreline erosion is a considerable problem, particularly in the Chesapeake. Garbisch believes that given the right conditions of wave drift and tidal amplitude, he can stop erosion with marsh plants. He cites the case of a homeowner on the Chesapeake whose house was only 30 feet from the edge of the bay. The shoreline was eroding at the rate of five feet a year, which meant that in six years the house would slump into the bay. Construction of a stone jetty, groin or revetment would cost $60 per linear foot, but Garbisch figured the erosion could be halted if marsh plants were set at a cost of only $1.45 per linear foot. The owner and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to try, and the house, now protected from erosion, overlooks a four-acre marsh.

Several times Garbisch persuaded the corps to place spoil—dredged-up material—in shallow tidal waters fronting existing marshes. When the spoil was deposited at the right elevation, allowing the tide to flood and ebb, Garbisch was able to plant the areas successfully.

All this has involved a good deal of trial and effort. When Garbisch first started working with seeds, he "shot-gunned" them into the spoil he was trying to plant, only to find they were quickly washed away by the tide. But placing the seeds or seedlings on spoil banks by hand can be hazardous. Banks can feel like quicksand and, Garbisch says, "When you start to sink into ooze wearing snowshoes covered with plastic, you know you're in trouble." Nowadays, he and staff members plant treacherous banks by floating over the area stomach down on rubber rafts or by using all-terrain vehicles and cultivators.

Despite Garbisch's accomplishments, some conservationists have qualms, especially since he has been a consultant for power companies in New Jersey and New Hampshire. George Reiger, of the National Wildlife Federation and a saltwater angling authority, says, "I don't want to hear an industry saying, 'Don't worry about what we destroy here; we'll have Dr. Garbisch build a bigger and better marsh.' As any fisherman knows, it just doesn't work that way. Because of tidal currents and other factors—availability of food, age, rate of growth—fish such as striped bass have certain definite preferences that just can't be met by creating a new marsh. I fear the build-a-hatchery mentality. What really matters is protection of the original habitat." John Clark, of the Conservation Foundation, says of Garbisch, "His work is interesting, but I don't want to see him running around the country like Johnny Spartinaseed." David Seymour, a staff naturalist for National Audubon and president of the Hudson River Fishermen's Association, adds, "My own feeling is that he has a genuine concern for the natural environment and that as he becomes more aware he'll see the fallacy of his belief that the country must 'grow' without constraint."

To which Garbisch says, "I really don't feel that way, but there does have to be some give and take. It's a battlefield now. There has to be accommodation where there are alternatives to improve environmental quality in conjunction with industrial expansion or development. After all, people are part of the environment, as integral a part as striped bass and ospreys. I don't buy the dog-headedness of some conservationists. They're not realistic."

Whatever the merits of the arguments, Garbisch is plowing ahead, literally, with research on marsh plants, including Phragmites communis, the common reed, ordinarily dismissed as worthless. The seeds of cordgrass and S. patens can be turned into edible flour. The Garbisch greenhouse at St. Michaels is alive with these plants and with pots of Scirpus robustus, the salt marsh bulrush, Juncas roemerianus, needle rush, and Typha angustifolia, narrowleaf cattail. Garbisch is interested in the potential of certain sedges, such as the bulrush, to absorb and detoxify phenols and other pollutants by plant metabolism. He has discovered that cordgrass will thrive in freshwater when seedlings are set in floating plastic boxes, and he is thinking of placing them on a polluted pond or on sewage lagoons to see if they will scrub the water clean. He is interested in using marsh plants, sea grasses and submerged aquatic vegetation as possible absorbents of polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs (SI, Sept. 1). "I would like to develop a screening test of aquatic plants and organisms—mussels, clams and oysters—to see if they will serve as 'sinks' for PCBs and pesticides," Garbisch says. "Some plants may metabolize PCBs."

No matter what happens and no matter what the critics say, Garbisch surely will continue to seethe with ideas. "Marshes!" he exclaims. "Twelve hours in a marsh gives you food for thought for months."