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Growing a Place for Growth

The new director, Lynne Nemeth, resonates with the direction BTA is going and has the background and experience to lead effectively. With a budget of $2.7 million and 30 staff members, BTA is a major employer for the region. Photo by LCGross

Boyce Thompson Arboretum announces opening of Wallace Gardens and plans for the future. 

There is a lot of change and much to celebrate at Boyce Thompson Arboretum these days. One of the biggest accomplishments is the culmination of over six years of hard work: the successful relocation and replanting of the Wallace Desert Garden collection. Located on 13 acres adjacent to Queen Creek, the much-anticipated new garden and its 1.5 miles of trails will open to the public on March 28.


The Wallace Desert Garden was originally created by noted agriculturalist Henry B. Wallace on 12 acres of land in North Scottsdale between 1987 and 2005. When it was determined that the garden could not stay at its original location, the Wallace Desert Garden Board of Directors worked closely with the board and staff of Boyce Thompson Arboretum (BTA) to save the collection

After great consideration, they agreed to a Herculean and unprecedented solution: relocating a massive number of plants, including 25-foot-tall cactus. With financial assistance from the Wallace Desert Garden and careful supervision by certified arborists on staff at BTA, the move was a success. Landscapers hand-dug plants and carefully boxed larger plants for the move. With 100 semi-truck loads, the team successfully relocated 5,870 plants, including 800 species new to BTA and 62 rare or endangered species, thus making an already world class institute even better. 

Metal tags like this are used to identify every plant on the property. Photo by LCGross

BTA is the largest botanical garden in Arizona and the oldest botanical garden west of the Mississippi. Founded in 1924, BTA was incorporated as Arizona’s first nonprofit research institution in 1927 and opened to the public in 1929. Spread over 343 acres of land, it currently has 4.5 miles of paths and boasts plants from 11 of the world’s deserts among the 18,900 arid-land plants within its borders. With a budget of $2.7 million and 30 staff members, BTA is a major employer for the region. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, hosts around 100,000 visitors a year, and has over 6,500 members. Additionally, with more than 275 different species of birds spotted, it has been named the “most enchanting” Audubon Important Birding Area in Arizona.


With a resume as impressive as this, an organization might be tempted to coast and simply continue their current excellent performance, but that is not happening at BTA. Instead, the arboretum has updated its vision while staying true to the original intentions of its founder, Colonel William Boyce Thompson. This has resulted in massive organizational change over the last few years, including the introduction of new executive leadership. BTA has also changed partnerships and affiliation, and is considering annexation into a municipality.


Though it was hard on the staff, BTA survived the dizzying change of having four executive directors in a four-year period. The new director, Lynne Nemeth, plans to stay awhile. She resonates with the direction BTA is going and has the background and experience to lead effectively. Nemeth has two master’s degrees, including one in Environmental Studies specializing in Endangered Species Policy from Prescott College. She also has experience in nonprofit management, including other green spaces, such as the Howard County Conservancy in Maryland and the Flagstaff Arboretum. She started at BTA in July 2019 and loves her new job.

Denise and David Green have been volunteering since the start of the year. BBTAs volunteer program ensures the park can meet demands from installing signage to hosting visitor events. Photo by LCGross

Besides inheriting the instability caused by multiple executive leader shifts in a short period of time, Nemeth came to BTA during a time of substantial organizational change. In 1976, the arboretum entered into a tripartite agreement with the University of Arizona (UA) and Arizona State Parks. Because of this, UA research occurred at the arboretum, BTA paid UA to manage all hiring and personnel matters, and Arizona State Parks helped with funding, provided a ranger, and assisted with marketing. The relationship worked well for several decades.


However, over the years, resources and priorities changed. The Arizona legislature wiped the state park budget during the economic downturn of 2008, and they could no longer help BTA. It cost a lot to have UA handle personnel matters, and the physical distance between the two institutions made it difficult for both to stay on the same page when the direction of the arboretum was changing and BTA did not have a voice in staff selection. Finally, the BTA Board of Directors wanted to recommit to Colonel William Boyce Thompson’s original vision of supporting the preservation and study of desert plants. They examined the situation carefully and, following discussions between all three agencies, mutually decided it did not make sense to continue the three-way partnership in the same manner as had existed historically.


“We wanted to be more in control of our own destiny,” Nemeth explained. She adds, “It’s not a bad thing. Over 40 years, things just change.” She emphasized that the relationship between the three agencies remains good, research is ongoing, and they want to continue to collaborate. “Now we get to figure out new and different ways of partnering,” Nemeth added.


With the dissolution of the tripartite agreement, BTA is open to other partnerships and has begun to collaborate with the Town of Superior. They have experimented with cross-promotion of events, and BTA created the “Arb After Hours” experience to coincide with Superior’s Second Friday events. Nemeth states, “We’ve had an awesome partnership over the past six months.”

It’s this success that is fueling the possibility of another major change for BTA and the Town of Superior: annexation of BTA into Superior’s town limits. 

Annexation would help BTA with public services and both agencies with tourism promotion. Historically, the state provided law enforcement and fire protection to BTA because it’s located on state land and fell under the state fire agreement, in which UA participated as a state agency. With the change in organizational affiliation, this was lost. Additionally, BTA is looking into possible expansion of services, but cannot do so without waste water treatment support, which Superior could provide. Conversely, Superior benefits immensely from the 100,000 visitors and national notoriety BTA brings to the town.

 “We will build here the most beautiful, and at the same time the most useful garden of its kind in the world.” — Colonel William Boyce Thompson. 

Mila Besich, mayor of Superior and a BTA Board Member, concurs with the benefits of annexation. She states, “This is a natural partnership. If we look at the roots of how the town of Superior was founded, we’ve always been partners… We need each other. It was Highway 60 and the arboretum that carried us through the bust times when we haven’t been as fortunate… Our collaboration is mutually beneficial, impacts economic diversification, and can help protect the arboretum.”

Solar panels like this one, can be found throughout the park which help provide electricity to run waterfalls and outdoor lighting. Photo by LCGross

She’s thrilled with the new leadership at BTA. “Lynne is fabulous and has brought added connection… With effort, communication, and integrity, both our agencies will benefit from this partnership.” She states the arboretum is “a special place. It impacts our entire region. With the arboretum within city limits, we’ll have the most beautiful gateway to our community, and we’re the gateway to the region.” She sees this new annexation as one of many positive possibilities occurring in Superior and Copper Country. “We have really good things happening for our region right now.”


In looking to the wellbeing of her town for the next 50 years, Besich says the town must diversify employment opportunities. She believes collaboration with BTA, particularly through research, could create new economic prospects. “We need to be looking for the next big thing… The town of Superior has always been innovative, which has impacted the practice of mining worldwide. We haven’t changed. Why aren’t we telling this story? With the impact of climate change, we can make innovations that impact our region and the whole world.” 

Additionally, when linked to science and entrepreneurship, Besich believes this partnership will advance William Boyce Thompson’s vision and legacy with studies into sustainability and food sourcing, as well as research into new products such as biodegradable plastics made from prickly pear. “In Superior, we were talking about sustainability before it was a buzz word.”

Becky Stephenson, BTA’s Plant Recorder, is tasked with documenting and seeing that every plant on the grounds is identified. Photo by LCGross.

Besich sums up her support for annexation by stating, “Superior and Boyce Thompson have been separate greenhouses, both growing amazing economic ecosystems, and now we’re bringing them together… It will no longer be ‘Boyce Thompson Arboretum three miles from Superior,’ but will now be ‘Superior Arizona Boyce Thompson Arboretum.’”


Boyce Thompson Arboretum is located just west of Superior off US Highway 60 at the base of Picketpost Mountain. Admission is $15 for adults and $5 for children aged 5-12. The winter hours are 9 am to 5 pm. For more information about the Wallace Desert Garden, see the October 14, 2014 Globe Miami Times article by Kim Stone.


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