As a child growing up on a farm in southeastern Pennsylvania, Lynne Nemeth developed an appreciation for the natural world that remained very much a part of her interests throughout the course of her life — so much so that she even turned her passion for nature into a career.
Nemeth is the executive director of the Boyce Thompson Arboretum — a nearly 100-year-old botanical garden that sits on the outskirts of Superior.
Nemeth describes herself as a naturalist — something that was very apparent as she strolled through the arboretum’s greenhouses on a Thursday afternoon in mid-February ahead of sitting down for an interview with Pinal’s People, pointing out some of the various plants in the greenhouse and their blooms.
“I love nature, I love learning about nature,” she said. “We grew up with so many animals on the farm, my mother was an incredible gardener and I think that this is just part of who I am.”
The arboretum, the largest and oldest botanical garden in the state, houses more than 19,000 plants from regions from around the world. Nemeth was named executive director of the 135-acre facility dedicated to conserving plants and wildlife in 2019.
According to Nemeth, the arboretum — like other botanical gardens and arboretums — by its very nature plays an important role in conservation. Since its establishment in 1924, the arboretum has worked to collect and propagate plants as well as keep the plants housed at the facility safe — 30% of which are rare or endangered species.
“We are keeping them (engaged plant species) alive for people to learn about, but also for wildlife,” said Nemeth. “I think that’s the most important thing. I mean, not only do plants benefit people, obviously they create the air that we breathe and the food that we eat, but they’re part of the whole system, and that whole system supports wildlife — pollinators, insects, birds and mammals.
“And so, just by our very existence, we are helping out all those critters.”
But achieving that mission is not without its challenges — especially when it comes to water.
As Arizona and much of the Southwest faces long-term drought, well water levels at the arboretum have declined.
It’s problematic for the arboretum because well water is what serves as the primary source for irrigation around the facility. And while many of the plants housed at the arboretum are desert plants, Nemeth noted that they still require irrigation at times — especially in the years when the region does not get good monsoon storms or strong winter rains.
In addition, irrigation is important for younger plants that are newly added to the arboretum. Nemeth noted that new plants typically require irrigation for two to three years to get established.
In the face of those challenges, the arboretum has come up with an initiative to help conserve water.
The program is called “Water Wise” — its aim is to educate visitors about water efficiency and install a new irrigation system at the arboretum, which will be completely computerized.
Making the system computerized, said Nemeth, will help to make irrigation at the arboretum more efficient and, ultimately, is expected to cut down on the facility’s water usage by about 30%.
And that’s just the start.
“Ultimately, what we want to do is reuse every single drop of water,” said Nemeth.
The arboretum is also an educational space — one that seeks to teach visitors not only about the plants housed at the facility but also about the role native plants and animals have in contributing to the environment.
“I wish that more people recognized the importance of native plants,” Nemeth said. “(And) understood the linkages between the plants and the pollinators and us and everything so that we could have more environments that are natural and healthy here in the Southwest.”
Understanding those linkages extends to appreciating the natural world fully as well as being mindful about them when it comes to economic development.
In some cases that could be as simple as having more natural areas within developments. It’s one thing that Nemeth wishes more developments aimed to do.
“I’m a big proponent of economic growth. I think we all understand how important it is — all understand, too, how important housing is and how difficult housing is for a lot of people here in Arizona — but every time I see the bulldozers go in and rip out everything and then put houses in so close together without preserving natural areas, it bothers me,” she said. “I prefer it when the washes are saved — that the native vegetation is left there in certain places. Because that’s going to continue to provide habitat for all of the critters that have been living in that area.”
It’s critical, too, because the effects of losing some of those habitats are wide reaching. One example of such impacts, noted Nemeth, can be seen with the white-tailed deer population in the Eastern United States and in the Midwest.
Over the last 90-100 years, the deer population count has skyrocketed — rising from an estimated 500,000 in the 1900s to a staggering 25-30 million in 2005.
The dramatic rise in their population has significant effects for the health of ecosystems in the region, as deer tend to overgraze on the very food sources they depend on.
The results means less availability of vegetation for the deer — which can result in their starvation — as well as less vegetation left for other wildlife, the elimination of some plant species and even the reduction of forests.
In addition, Nemeth noted that the overpopulation has resulted in the deer encroaching on people’s properties, eating their lawns and spreading Lyme disease since the deer are often carriers of ticks that harbor the disease.
So what’s caused this population spike in white-tailed deer? The answer is the loss of their natural predators in the region.
Both coyotes and bobcats hunt the deer, but their populations in some areas have dipped over the years. And the deer’s biggest predator, wolves, no longer exist in the area.
“You take one important piece out of a system and the whole system changes, most likely not for the better,” Nemeth said.
It’s one example, but there are others that hit closer to home for Arizona.
Take, for instance, one saguaro cactus or an ironwood tree.
According to Nemeth, there are a multitude of species that depend on both plants — with the saguaro even earning the sobriquet “the saguaro hotel” in light of the host of species it supports.
But as the climate grows warmer, saguaros are expected to migrate, which may likely greatly impact the animals and insects that depend on them as a shelter and food source.
And as far as changes to the ecosystem go, saguaro migration is just one example of many.
“Everything is linked together,” Nemeth said. “The insect populations are going down, bird populations are going down — we need to be caring for them because caring for them is also caring for us. Our futures are linked with one another.”
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.