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Joe Toolan

Chesapeake Conservation Corps Profile: Connor Liu & The Nature Conservancy

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We’re showcasing the unique experience of participating in the Chesapeake Conservation Corps by sharing profiles of Corps member of the 2018-2019 cohort along with information on their host site and descriptions of the work they have been doing.

Maryland native, Connor Liu grew up a few short miles from the Potomac River. Before joining the Chesapeake Conservation Corps, Connor worked at several environmental organizations in Maryland including the Assateague Island National Seashore. Interestingly, Connor also spent a summer in Mozambique researching flora and fauna of the wild African ecosystem at Gorongosa National Park. His Corps service host site, The Nature Conservancy, fits Connor’s interest in restoration, stating that “restoring habitat is work that strengthens the intimate bond that humans should have with the land. One can observe tangible progress and there is little that seems more fulfilling to me.”

Capstone projects are a graduation requirement for all Corps members at the conclusion of their year of service. A capstone project is an initiative designed by the Corps member that advances both an interest of the member and a priority objective of the member’s host site. Connor’s capstone project is focused on monitoring and restoration of red spruce trees in Maryland.

Since The Nature Conservancy began this work in 1996, they have planted over 65,000 red spruce seedlings in western Maryland. Red spruce trees have numerous benefits to forest ecosystems, including providing habitat for native species (such as mice, voles, bears, deer and hares), keeping headwater streams cool (which allows native trout to stay at their preferred body temperature), and providing a carbon sink. Connor set up 27 monitoring sites over a 30-acre area of Red Spruce trees (planted last year) and proceeded to count new seedlings to determine survival and reproductive rates. Connor organized surveying teams in partnership with the Deep Creek Conservation Corps (See Below) to be as precise and efficient as possible. Thanks to Connor’s work, there are data supporting the efforts to bring back red spruce populations in Maryland.

Connor’s project also involved a restoration technique needed to help the red spruce survive called “release.” This part of the project is necessary to balance red spruce trees’ sunlight needs in older forests with denser canopy that does not ordinarily allow enough sunlight for them to grow efficiently. Connor selectively girdles common hardwoods to allow red spruce to ascend to the canopy centuries faster than they would have naturally. Girdling (also called ringbarking) is the act of removing a strip of bark from an area of a tree, which will limit or halt its growth above the area of the girdle. This process has been successful in West Virginia and through his capstone project, Connor has brought it to Maryland. This process is meant to help the overall diversity of the forests as well.

The Nature Conservancy is providing additional trainings for Connor this year, including native plant identification, invasive species identification and removal, GIS mapping, and prescribed fire skills. Prescribed burns are an important part of forestry management. Connor has been trained on the process and conducts them in many areas of Maryland (such as the Nassawango Preserve, Maryland Forest Service, Department of Natural Resource Heritage, Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge). (See Above).

Chesapeake Conservation Corps members hold “All Hands on Deck” days where all Corps members participate in projects at various host sites. Recently, Connor, along with this year’s cohort of Corps members, helped build a “Nature Discovery Area” at Anita C Leight Estuary Center in Harford County. Connor, along with fellow Corps members Olivia Wisner (Chesapeake Bay National Estuary Research Reserve) and Bradley Simpson (Audubon Naturalist Society), are pictured taking a short break after installing a sunken canoe element in the play space. Next month, the Corps members will have one more “All Hands on Deck” experience on Poplar Island with Maryland Environmental Service to conduct monarch butterfly surveys.

Connor hopes to stay with The Nature Conservancy, or take his experience in the program to the Peace Corps after graduation. Connor loves the Chesapeake Conservation Corps program because it allows him to see many environmental projects all over the state of Maryland and network with other recent college graduates with the same interests as him. The Chesapeake Bay Trust is excited to celebrate this year’s cohort and welcome next year’s cohort of Chesapeake Conservation Corps members at the upcoming orientation and graduation ceremony that will take place at Camp Letts in Edgewater in August. Connect with him on LinkedIn.