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Oceans and Coasts

Love of Nature Inspires Cousins in Conservation

Chrissy Schwinn (tallest on skis) and her cousins, sisters Jen and Heidi Kretser, try out skis in 1979, as their grandfather Victor DeMaria captures the moment.

Chrissy Schwinn, Assistant Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team, has always been intrigued how she and three of her cousins (Jen and Heidi Kretser and Jesse DeMaria-Kinney) all ended up working in environmental careers.

What drew these “eco-cousins” down similar and, they joke, relatively un-lucrative career paths? Was there something in the water, or in their genes, that spurred a love of nature?

Perhaps both. For these four cousins each credit their parents, and early encounters with the natural world — whether the fish-filled lakes of the Adirondacks, or the salty waves of Cape Cod washing over buried quahogs — with inspiring their individual passions to work for the environment.

Childhoods in rural communities, as well as family camping trips and vacations in nature, were a formative common denominator for the cousins.

“My grandparents lived on Cape Cod so we would go there often, swimming, fishing, clamming,” says Chrissy. “We had a tiny cabin in the Adirondacks and would camp, hike, canoe and ski. Being outside was what we did.”

My Father's World

Their dads seemed to be the ones with more overt personal and professional connections with nature.

As Jen, Director of Programs for The Wild Center, a natural history museum in Adirondack Park, New York, recalls, “My first memory is walking a trap line with my father on a snowy day. I remember him showing me deer tracks and scat and talking about the animals he was trapping – marten and fisher.”

She and Heidi grew up building forts on a farm outside Saranac Lake, New York in the six-million-acre Adirondack Park, where their dad, Walt Kretser, was a forester and fish biologist for the New York state Department of Conservation. He volunteered as a wildlife rehabilitator, “so we always had a menagerie of wildlife around — raccoons, crows, skunks, owls, hawks, and baby birds,” says Jen.

Heidi, who works as Livelihoods and Conservation Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s North America Program, agreed: “I was exposed to bug collections, learning how to identify trees, and fishing.” Her father's work studying the effects of acid rain on Adirondack lakes and ponds, and the llamas he kept as pack animals to carry equipment to remote locations, are vivid memories of her youth.

Growing up in Northampton, Massachusetts, Jesse says his dad James Kinney also inspired his love of nature: “I remember canoe fishing trips, quahogging (always with a license and respecting size and catch limits) in Cape Cod’s bays and estuaries, and star-searching on clear nights.”

And then there were the camping trips on the islands of Saranac Lake with his mom and the Kretser family. “Uncle Walt would take me fishing for brook trout in the North Country woodlands but most memorable were his tales about fabled — and exaggerated — Adirondack wildlife,” says Jesse.

Chrissy’s dad, Don, a retired wastewater engineer drawn to his career by love of water, remains active in improving water quality and reducing nitrogen run-off on Cape Cod. Chrissy and he now share an interest in keeping coasts and oceans healthy.

Moms Made Adventure Happen

The cousins also realized how important a role their moms –– the three DeMaria sisters of the prior generation — had played.

Mary Lou (Chrissy’s mom), Katrine (Heidi and Jen’s mom), and Susan (Jesse’s mom), were the organizers who urged the kids to get outside and actually made trips happen. “The three sisters were really all about having fun and doing things. Walking, hiking, skiing, camping, and travel,” says Heidi.

“They took us everywhere outside,” says Chrissy, and her Irish-Italian heritage meant family was always around. “As the only girl with three older brothers, I had to roll with it. I remember hiking in the Adirondacks at 4 or 5 years old, carrying my own sleeping bag.”

Seeing the World Full of Nature

Their work has taken all four cousins on travels around the world. As they grew and all three girls attended Cornell University, Heidi says, “the four of us tended to reconnect each family reunion and share experiences.”

Jesse’s career led him from his first job as wilderness camp counselor to sustainable development work in Cape Verde and Hanoi, Vietnam. Chrissy, who started as an eco-tourism volunteer for the Conservancy’s nascent China program, developed strategic communications for international programs, and attended climate change talks in Copenhagen. Jen studied in Australia and New Zealand, trained park rangers in Siberia and recently traveled to Finland on a climate exchange. Heidi studied and interned in Nepal and returned to the Adirondacks to make a difference in the place she knew best.

Paying it Forward: The Next Generation

As they start their own families, the cousins are passing on traditions that foster love of nature.

Heidi’s children, Leena, 8, and Owen, 6, love the outdoors and picking blueberries at their grandparent’s house. “We love to camp, hike, and canoe,” Heidi says. “Both kids can ID numerous birds by sight and song!”

Currently a stay-at-home dad who consults, Jesse takes his one-year-old son to the country every chance they get. “He always lets out a great shriek,” when he spots cats, dogs, squirrels or cows, Jesse says.

Chrissy’s daughter Petra, 6, and son, Jackson, 4, both camped in diapers and enjoy Sunday hikes. She worries that it’s harder to get kids outside today. "Petra is attending her first 'Eco-leadership camp' so I am trying to brainwash her early," says Chrissy. "I liken it to Happy Meals," arguing the conservation movement needs to learn to market nature to young kids.

“What I really like is that they are proud about what I do and will say things to friends like “my mommy takes care of the oceans,” Chrissy says.

Jen says she’s in awe of the work her sister and cousins do. “It is really inspiring and hopeful to hear about their lives and it definitely feels like a common thread that binds us together…Maybe at the next family reunion we can come up with a plan to save the world?!”

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