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Chesapeake Conservation Corps Graduate Spotlight- Kristina Soetje

By September 29, 2021October 3rd, 2021Blog

On August 17th 33 members, from 28 host sites, graduated from the Chesapeake Conservation Corps (Corps) Program and the Chesapeake Bay Trust welcomed the 12th class of the Corps, with 33 new members assigned to 26 host sites. Created by the Maryland General Assembly in 2010, the Corps provides career and leadership training for young people interested in environmental careers. The insights gained from graduating corps members can shape the potential for environmental science and industry in the future. We are pleased to share Kristina’s (Pictured above repairing beaver baffles  to restore stream flow) experience here:

Kristina was a toddler when her family moved to Maryland from Long Island, New York. School field trips to the National Aquarium and the Chesapeake Bay, outdoor education programs, adventures with friends around the watershed, and her grandmother’s environmentalism strengthened her love for the natural world. She attended the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a dual-degree student where she studied environmental science and geography, visual arts with the animation concentration, and dance. She interned at Ladew Topiary Gardens and the National Aquarium. Maura Duffy, her National Aquarium colleague (who was in the 5th class of the Corps), was the first Chesapeake Conservation Corps alumna to recommend the program to her.

Kristina standing between her former National Aquarium supervisor Charmaine Dahlenburg (left) and CCC supervisor/mentor Deborah Landau (right) at Nassawango Creek Preserve. (Photo: Deborah Landau/TNC)

After she graduated from UMBC in May 2019, Kristina cycled across the United States from Baltimore to San Francisco to raise awareness of young adult cancer for the Ulman Foundation. Upon returning to Maryland that August, she interned at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation under Carmera Thomas-Wilhite (who was in the 1st class of the corps in 2010), the second Corps alumna to recommend the program. Inspired by Duffy and Thomas-Wilhite, Kristina researched the Corps further and applied for a spot in the 2020-2021 Cohort.

She was thrilled to be matched with The Nature Conservancy’s Maryland/DC Chapter for her service year. “I was impressed by the variety and scale of the work that they undertake to make impactful science-informed decisions across Maryland” Kristina explained. “I was excited for all the professional development opportunities proposed to me. I recognized that by being placed with TNC MD/DC, I would be surrounded by incredible and inspiring colleagues, experts dedicated to their respective disciplines in the conservation field.”

The Nature Conservancy, a global non-profit organization, impacts over 70 countries and territories and all 50 U.S. states with science-based conservation efforts. Their mission is to “conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends”. Kristina’s well-rounded Corps Work Plan contributed to this mission for TNC MD/DC. Highlights included researching forest health and resilience in Maryland through rare plant surveys and forest restoration project site monitoring. She wrote a white paper discussing how herbicide treatments with prescribed burns could remove invasive Phragmites australis barriers to facilitate marsh migration. She led trail maintenance events in western Maryland. Additionally, Kristina reunited with the National Aquarium team for an Atlantic white cedar and bald cypress planting event on the Eastern Shore. She appreciates that she explored many unique and beautiful ecosystems state-wide for work; TNC MD/DC owns and protects around 30 preserves.

Nailing a trail sign to a tree during her trail maintenance site visit at Sideling Hill Creek
Preserve. (Photo: Michael Sioson/CCC)

Kristina’s favorite component of her term was becoming a Certified Wildland Firefighter Type II. “I was fortunate to serve as a crew member on eight prescribed burns encompassing nearly 2,000 acres of TNC and partner lands.” One burn was filmed by CBS and broadcast as a news story in April 2021, reaching over five million people nation-wide.

She even incorporated prescribed burns into her Corps Capstone Project. Kristina researched how different variables behind TNC MD/DC’s prescribed burns impact the production of pyrogenic carbon, a stable carbon sequestering and soil fertilizing material, within the soils of Nassawango Creek Preserve. The project became an international collaboration with Swansea University researchers, who assisted Kristina with sample design feedback and laboratory soil tests. Results showed that pyrogenic carbon production occurs primarily in areas with a multi-burn history. Soil moisture does not impact production of the material at the preserve, so wetland and dune habitats hold similar quantities of pyrogenic carbon if they are experiencing the same burn regime. Kristina’s Capstone prioritized soil science for TNC MD/DC and further justified their prescribed burns. Interest is growing towards publishing her study into a scientific journal.

Kristina believes the most important aspect of her Corps year was her ability to form valuable connections with others despite the ongoing pandemic. She enjoyed moments she shared with other Corps members through over 10 Site Visits and 3 All Hands on Deck events, where she learned about their work and Host Organizations. She networked with TNC MD/DC partners including scientists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife burn crews, and university professors. Kristina bonded with her TNC MD/DC colleagues and absorbed the valuable lessons they taught her, a favorite being to appreciate the little things in life despite the circumstances of the bigger picture. She is thankful for her close mentorship with Deborah Landau, the Conservation Ecologist for TNC MD/DC, whom Kristina says was “inspiring, honest, and supportive of me professionally and personally.”

Kristina graduated as part of the 33 from the 11th class and looks forward to her immediate post-Corps plans. She was hired by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources as their Volunteer Coordinator for Patapsco Valley State Park. She will match volunteers with opportunities to serve the park, coordinate their trainings, oversee their stewardship projects, design volunteer newsletters, and more. “I find significant value in connecting communities to the lands and waters they care for through volunteerism and environmental stewardship, so I am excited to express this through my work with the Maryland Park Service.” As a volunteer herself, Kristina will stay active with TNC MD/DC by continuing to serve as a prescribed burn crew member.

Having fun with ignition duties as a certified Wildland Firefighter Type II at Sideling Hill Creek Preserve. (Photo: Matt Kane/TNC)

Flagging red spruce seedlings at Cranesville Swamp Preserve to inventory their populations
and monitor their growth rates with Forest Science Project Manager Pabodha Galgamuwa. (Photo:
William Weems/TNC)

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