Lynne Nemeth left her job as executive director of the Arboretum at Flagstaff last week, with Kristin Haskins stepping in as interim director on June 1. Nemeth held the position for a little over seven years and will trade mountain snow for desert sunshine come July.
“It's stunning,” Nemeth said of her new posting at The Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, Arizona. “But I’m going to miss this beautiful place very much. It’s been an honor to work here and learn about the ecology of northern Arizona and work with such great people."
Sitting on the back patio of the Arb grounds Tuesday morning, Nemeth recounted her years in Flagstaff as the incoming storm blew wind through the trees and grey clouds gathered over the San Francisco Peaks.
When Nemeth moved to Flagstaff in 2006, it was with a master’s degree in music performance (Nemeth is a singer) and a deep-rooted love of nature.
She hadn’t initially planned to apply for the position of executive director, but she soon decided The Arboretum was exactly the place she wanted to work. Fortunately, she also had a background in nonprofit administration, the most recent position being at the Howard County Conservancy in Maryland. Nemeth signed up as a docent at the Arb first, though, a position that gave her training on local wildlife.
"I didn’t have the qualifications to continue in that field yet, though. There are a lot of people in [Flagstaff] with a lot of knowledge, and I thought 'You know, if I want to get a job in this field, I’d better get a degree in this field.' So I did," she said.
Nemeth decided to pursue a degree in environmental studies -- more specifically, in endangered species policy. She completed the two-year program at Prescott College in 2011, at which point there was an opening at the Arboretum.
The Arboretum at Flagstaff has had a handful of directors in its near-40-year existence. The nonprofit -- which, among other things, tracks and protects 31 endangered plant species in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona -- was founded by Frances McAllister in 1981 as The Transition Zone Horticultural Institute.
On the same grounds as what used to be the McAllisters' summer cabin and later became Frances' home when her husband died, The Arb is housed in part in former residences. The low houses, made of the volcanic rock so indicative of old Flagstaff, are now home to greenhouses, research stations and offices. The Arb gets a little over 20,000 visitors in its seven-month season, closing every winter from Nov. 1 until April 14.
During her time at The Arb, one of Nemeth's main goals, she said, was to increase this visitorship number. Efforts to do so included adding new events, such as Wine in the Woods and the opening of the butterfly house -- the latter, according to Nemeth, is currently the organization’s most popular attraction.
"People look at screens all the time. So getting people outside can be a challenge, particularly with younger generations. We do a lot with students and youth, but all organizations like ours are challenged with the changes in out society," Nemeth said.
When she herself was a kid, all that was very different. Growing up on a farm in southeastern Pennsylvania proved to be formative of Nemeth's love of nature and later, in the direction of her career path.
"On a farm, that’s how I really became a naturalist gardener, an animal lover," she said. "I drove the 1956 Studebaker, so I learned to operate all the farm equipment. We had horses, so I learned how to ride. This was back in the day when parents would say to their kids, 'Leave and don’t come back until dinner,' so we did all sorts of exploration on 60 acres with creeks and ponds.
"We would just go exploring and bring back critters to the house. It was a great way to grow up, that was before the internet and computers."
In her endangered species research years later, Nemeth has focused on a tiny species many Arizona residents don't even know exist. Brady's Pincushion Cactus grows solely in Marble Canyon close to the border with Utah named for its colorful bluffs.
Species as a whole have been a main focus at the organization as Arizona sees some of the most drastic warming from climate change. In many ways, arboreta see and follow the immediate threats.
"I think we forget sometimes that this is not a thing that people think about everyday. It's a big issue and we take the opportunity to educate the public. And that’s something that will continue to do here," Nemeth said.
Boyce Thompson is the oldest Arboretum west of the Mississippi, according to its website, and has about 100,000 visitors each year — an amount quadruple that of Flagstaff. While life will be different, Nemeth says she will continue gardening as she did on her Doney Park property, incorporating native plants and knowledge of the landscape that continues to grow over time.
“There are cacti of all kinds,” she said. “But I don’t want any palm trees.”