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The Bonds of Botany: A conversation with Steve Young

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

After an influential career of over thirty-one years at the New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP), Steve Young retired this past spring from the post of Chief Botanist. His work brought him to all regions of New York, and his tireless efforts to study, inventory, and protect rare plants reached beyond NYNHP to the larger conservation community. Young’s perceptive interest in invasive plants and their significant

effects on habitats made him an early advocate for studying and managing invasive species on a broad, concerted level in New York. He served as the coordinator of LIISMA PRISM from 2010 to 2016 and was board chair of the forward-looking Invasive Plant Council, a precursor to the PRISM system [Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management] that laid the foundation for much of the network we see today. He doesn’t appear to be slowing down though. Young continues to be active with the New York Flora Association as a member since 1991, including terms as president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer, and ten years as the newsletter editor, and contributes to botanical societies throughout the state. He runs the Instagram account @newyorkinvasives that documents invasive plants in New York and provides distilled information and tips to a wide audience. Please read on to hear Young’s reflections on his work in botany and conservation.

Photo above: Southern blue flag (Iris virginica, G5S1), Wayne County, June 2021. Photo by Mike Hough

Please tell us about one of your favorite discoveries in the field or an aspect of being a botanist that you love.

Steve Young (SY): One of my favorite discoveries was finding the first occurrence of the federally endangered Northeastern bulrush [Scirpus ancistrochaetus] in New York. I had spent a lot of fieldwork time looking for it in the southern Adirondacks and in the southern tier, and, finally, found it in a small vernal pond in Steuben County near the Pennsylvania border. We knew it liked these small ponds on tops of hills just over the border in Pennsylvania where it is more common. I used GIS and topo maps to home in on places that looked similar in New York and then surveyed them. I found many likely spots for it, but only one had the plants.

Photo: Northeastern bulrush (Scirpus ancistrochaetus, G3S1), August 2017. © ephraimz via iNaturalist

What’s one of the biggest changes in conservation that you’ve seen over time since you first began your career? SY: The large rise of effort spent inventorying and managing invasive species was a big change in conservation and something that was not on many people’s radar in the early ’90s. In the mid-90s, a few people and I started the Ad Hoc Committee on Invasive Species, made up of volunteers from many organizations and agencies, which eventually turned into the Invasive Plant Council and spurred the creation of the PRISM system and millions of dollars in funding to support work on invasives.

Photo above: New York Flora Association field trip group at Letchworth State Park (Steve Young far left kneeling), June 1994

How have advancements in technology, such as GIS, impacted your work over the last few decades?

SY: When I started doing botanical work in the late ’70s, we were still using typewriters, mainframe computers, and 3-by-5 cards to document plant records. Mapping was done by hand on paper USGS topo quads. Since then, I've seen the advent of personal computers, flat screens, laser and color printers, digital cameras, drones, databases, thumb drives (CDs and DVDs came and went), GIS, GPS, the Internet, email, search engines, voice software that I use every day, smart phones, social media, and apps that automatically identify plants. All of that has tremendously impacted my work over time! I went from doing fieldwork with heavy plant manuals, paper field notebooks, large multi-lens cameras, and large GPS units, to just using apps on a smart phone. What career achievement has been the most rewarding to you?

SY: Becoming the Chief Botanist for the New York Natural Heritage Program was a dream come true, and it has been very rewarding to work on the conservation of New York’s plants and develop so many botanical friends over a long career. Seeing our initial efforts to address invasive species in the mid-90s become a large network of people funded to work on them has also been very rewarding.

Photo above: Bill Jacobs (LIISMA Founding Director and now Program Manager), Kathy Schwager (former LIISMA Director), and Steve Young (former LIISMA Coordinator, Nassau County, Long Island, September 2019. Photo by Steve Young

From your time spent working in the invasive species network in New York state, including PRISMs, agencies, and non-profits, can you share any lessons learned or any particularly promising experiences?

SY: Since I started working with the PRISMs and during my time as the coordinator for the Long Island PRISM, I realized how important it was to put effort and money into identifying and controlling tier 2 [low abundance, high impact] species. In the early days, there was a lot of effort put into educating people about and controlling tier 4 [widespread, high impact] species, and we didn’t put as much priority into looking for new species on the horizon. With the advent of iMapInvasives and the tier system, it has become easier to be on alert for those species. How has the rise of invasive species—both the spread and awareness of them—informed your way of thinking about conservation and how you approached your work in more recent years?

SY: I think I tried to integrate invasive species work in all of my rare plant work and looked for how the causes of this problem could be addressed. For example, the tremendous increase in white-tailed deer over my career has served to reduce the understory of our forests as well as the rare species that live there, and at the same time increase the amount of invasive species that replace the native species that are eaten by the deer. I have tried to educate people about these causes in the hopes that the trends could be reversed.

Photo above: Steve Young, Tiana Beach, Westhampton Island, Long Island, September, 2004. Photo by Joe Jannsen.

What advice would you give to a new generation of botanists, either what you wish you had heard yourself starting out or something imperative to today that might be challenging to them?

SY: Unfortunately, there is a much smaller generation of new botanists coming out of universities these days than there used to be, and I would encourage all new botanists to be as active as they can in their scientific community, social media, and in the places where they work, to recruit new botanists and plant lovers and make people aware how important botany is to the environment and the well-being of humans.

This interview was conducted over email in mid-August 2022 and has been edited for clarity. The aforementioned species southern blue flag and northeastern bulrush are plants that are native to New York, and the corresponding image captions include their conservation statuses.

From the NY iMapInvasives Team: Thank you, Steve!

We thank Steve for his support of NY iMapInvasives all these years, including confirming reports of tricky-to-ID species, reporting invasives everywhere he went, helping us steer the development of our tools, serving as a botany resource for PRISMs, and overall being a positive presence in the invasive species community!

Retiring Chief Botanist Steve Young passes the master rare plant list to newly appointed Chief Botanist Rich Ring, New York Natural Heritage Program office, Albany, New York, April 2022


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