A simple bequest, a defunct dairy farm, and an institutional secretary with a vision launched the evolution of one of the nation's leading environmental research centers.
In 1962, a southern Maryland dairy farmer named Mr. Robert Lee Forrest died. In his will, he bequeathed his 368-acre Java dairy farm and other holdings on the Rhode River in southern Anne Arundel County, Md., to the Smithsonian Institution. Initial discussions entertained the idea of selling the property to add to the Smithsonian's endowment. But the new incoming secretary, S. Dillon Ripley, persuaded the Institution to consider holding onto it and exploring the property's potential.
It quickly became apparent that the Java farm and surrounding area provided a wide variety of habitats for terrestrial, wetland, and estuarine field biology and ecology. The center was officially established in 1965 as the Chesapeake Bay Center for Field Biology. At the time, the founders expected the center to serve as a field collecting site, where scientists from the Smithsonian, local universities and government agencies would collect samples and data during the day and return to their own labs. Major on-site facilities and staff were not part of the initial vision.
But the value of the site drew interest from both researchers and outside funders. With a $375,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, followed by six more grants totaling $550,000 by the end of 1969, the Smithsonian purchased 568 additional acres of adjoining land, bringing the total to 933 acres. Although the site was originally considered for field collection only, by 1969 a facilities development plan was beginning to take shape in addition to land acquisition interests.
On-site research was growing, and researchers needed a better place to do it. Twenty years of abandonment had deteriorated the old barns on the original Java farm, and most of them had to be destroyed. However, one cow barn was saved. The downstairs cow stanchions were turned into small laboratories, and the upstairs hay loft was converted into a dormitory. In 1970 the Learn/Work internship program launched, and the Smithsonian's Rhode River research site, though still in its infancy, had developed into an active research and educational facility.
Mirroring its evolution, the Chesapeake Bay Center for Field Biology also changed its name in 1970 and became the Chesapeake Bay Center for Environmental Studies (CBCES). By that time, a botanical survey had been made of the site, the watershed had been mapped, and various forms of weather data had been collected. Meanwhile, and acquisition continued at a rapid pace. By the mid-1970s, the Smithsonian owned 1800 acres of property, allowing it to conceive of the goal of owning or protecting most of the undeveloped waterfront and near-waterfront lands on the Rhode River.
By 1974, at least 15 scientists from the Smithsonian, the USGS and local universities were conducting research at the center, which produced 43 articles and journal publications by 1975. Plant physiologist Bert Drake began working on tidal marsh plant communities (and continues today with the longest-running field study on the effects of atmospheric CO2 on plants in the world). A meteorological and water quality monitoring station was set up at the end of the dock in 1970, and continues to operate today. The first of what would become many stream gauging stations along Muddy Creek River was installed and began the decades-long monitoring of the stream that continues today.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that the site needed resident scientists to develop a long-term research theme, and by 1974, the first staff scientist was hired to work fully on site. Jim Lynch, who had just obtained his Ph.D. from Berkeley in zoology, began developing the terrestrial animal ecology program that continues at the center today. The first new construction was completed in 1975 when the visitor's center opened its doors.
The importance of this unique site, which encompasses a permanent base with both land and water holdings was almost immediately recognized and the center's overarching research themes began to focus on the connections between the atmosphere, watershed, and estuary, and on human impacts on those systems.
The center continued to grow throughout the 70's and early 80's with the construction of a laboratory building, the formal establishment of an education program for young scientists, and later a program for public education, and the continued production of important scientific results. Between 1983 and 1985, some of the members of the Smithsonian Radiation Biology Laboratory (RBL) in Rockville, Md., moved their studies to the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Research Center. After the RBL closed in 1985, the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Research Center was renamed the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC).
In the mid-1980s, the public education program began to grow with the establishment of the Discovery Trail and the Muddy Creek canoe trips. Between science and education, SERC was poised for a period of steady growth that continues today. By 1993, there were 80 employees and about 98 research associates, visiting scientists, fellows, graduate students, interns and volunteers.
Though initially focused on the Rhode River and Chesapeake Bay, the research quickly took on global significance as researchers began seeing the Chesapeake Bay as a model for the complex environmental issues facing the world. Expanding outward from our main campus, our scientists now conduct comparative studies throughout the world, and a cadre of international scientists visits SERC annually.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, SERC research continued to expand. The National Invasive Species Act of 1996 pinpointed the ballast water in large ships as one of the key reasons for the spread of invasive species. That act created the National Ballast Information Clearinghouse, which SERC and the U.S. Coast Guard have operated since 1997. All major commercial ships docking in U.S. ports must now report to SERC describing how they treat their ballast water. In 1996 SERC also took over the Smithsonian's UV monitoring at its on-site weather tower, and began researching mercury pollution in 2004.
Volunteer archaeology appeared at SERC in 2008, when it acquired the Contee farm, reuniting a plantation split in two for a century and a half. Expansion to the neighboring Sellman Farm two years later spurred the creation of an official Archaeology Lab. And in 2014, SERC opened the doors of the sustainable Charles McC. Mathias Laboratory, the first LEED-Platinum building in the Smithsonian.
Today SERC encompasses 2,650 acres of land. It is home to a diverse staff of senior scientists and supports an interdisciplinary team of more than 180 researchers, technicians, and students carrying out their work at SERC and at field stations from Alaska to Antarctica, and from Belize to Australia.