Advice for Emerging Professionals in Native Plant Conservation | Part 1

Today, we’re pleased to introduce our newest blog series focused on careers in native plant conservation and science. In the coming weeks, our CNPS Student Advisors will be bringing you information interviews with experts in the native plant field.  Here, Hannah Garcia-Wickstrum, a graduate student at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB interviews Denise Knapp, the director of conservation at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

A conversation with Director of Conservation, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden Denise Knapp
By Hannah Garcia-Wickstrum

Denise Knapp Photo: SBBG

Denise Knapp oversees the Conservation program at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, including all biodiversity, rare plant, restoration, outreach/advocacy work, and conducts ecological research. Denise has a PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a master’s degree in Geography from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has worked on vegetation, fire ecology, invasive species, habitat restoration, and rare plant projects; her current focus is plant-insect interactions. She has worked as a plant ecologist in California (particularly the Channel Islands) for two decades across the consulting, university, and nonprofit worlds. Photo and bio courtesy of  SBBG.



You can’t just hunker down and do science, you need to put a lot of energy into communicating, strategizing, and relationship building.


H: How did you land your current role as Conservation Director?

D: I was finishing my PhD at the University of California Santa Barbara and had a couple of years to go. I got a call from Peter Schuyler, who was my boss when I worked on Catalina Island, telling me about a position at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. I wasn’t too sure if I wanted to apply because I was still in school, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I was hired as the conservation program manager; Dieter Wilken was the conservation director at the time but was going to retire soon. So, I applied and got it! And then was promoted to director when Dieter retired. 

H: What type of individual is best suited for your position?

D: You have to wear a lot of hats, so it’s best to be well-rounded. You are expected to be a scientist but also a good manager, a good representative of the garden, and strategist. It’s an all-purpose job. I have to integrate with our education, horticulture, development, and communications functions. You also have to be a relationship builder and be good at writing proposals, since we have to fund own positions.

I also find myself thinking of conservation psychology a fair bit; how are we going to inspire the next generation of conservationists? How do we get people to support us? People don’t trust scientists like they once did; it’s sort of a weird time in history. Scientists tend to be introverts and to wall themselves off, but we need to bridge the gap and find better ways to communicate our science. 

H: Is there a particular skill set that you feel is mandatory?

D: All of the above! You can’t just hunker down and do science, you need to put a lot of energy into communicating, strategizing, and relationship building. When I started as director, I was a department of one, but by putting energy into these things, and by hiring good people who expand that work, we’ve grown to a department of 12 now. The larger we get, the more conservation work we can do, but it becomes even more important that I wear all of those hats. I actually think it helps that my bachelor’s degree is in art and my master’s degree is in social science.

H: Who or what got you into native plants?

D: Animals. I have always been crazy about animals. Bugs, lizards, horses. When it came time to go to grad school, I thought: Should I study oaks or mountain lions? But I decided that ultimately, it’s the plants that provide the habitat for the animals. Biological diversity is so important to our well-being and survival, and native plants provide the foundation.

H: How do we get more people interested in native plants and conservation?

D: Any and all ways. We want to move people along a path from just being interested to doing something about it – “stages of readiness,” it’s called. People may start by visiting the garden [SBBG] and thinking it’s pretty. Then they might go to a lecture or a field trip, and learn more, and then they may decide to start volunteering. Appreciating nature and learning about the value and importance of native plants is one of the first steps. It starts with more of a feeling than it does knowledge, so just getting them outside and inspired will start the process. It helps to create fun experiences and a sense of community. So, it depends where they are on that spectrum/path, and we have to meet them where they are at. It’s something I think about all the time. 

Denise Knapp enjoying the wildflowers at Carrizo Plain. Photo courtesy of Denise Knapp

H: Was there a particular moment that defined your professional career?

D: I was working on Catalina Island as a plant ecologist. I was tasked with saving rare plants and studying the effects of fire and invasive species. I was trying to protect and restore the endangered Catalina Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus traskiae), and I didn’t even know who pollinates it. The pivotal moment for me was watching a bee fly (Bombyliidae) visit a flower, looking and acting like a tiny hummingbird, and thinking that was so cool. I wanted to know who it was, understand its role and interactions in the system, and how to re-build habitat.

H: What projects are you currently working on?

D: There are so many! I’ll pick four that are representative.

We have a project to survey and map all the trails in the Thomas Fire scar (within the Los Padres National Forest) looking for invasive plants that might need removal, rare plants that might need protecting, and eroded areas that might need habitat restoration. We’ll use these data to make recommendations, and then pursue restoration actions. A portion of this work will be done by community (aka citizen) scientists. We are testing the idea that non-professional “para-botanists” can go out and help make a project like this affordable and scalable elsewhere, since fires keep getting larger and more frequent here in California.

A second project is removing priority invasive plants from the Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve in Lompoc with our partners at Wildlands Conservation Science. We mapped all the weeds and then wrote a management plan to prioritize their removal. We have set out to eradicate 18 different invasive plants that have limited abundance, and on the other end of the invasion spectrum, we are controlling the highly invasive veldt grass (Ehrharta calycina) where it threatens an endangered wildflower, Vandenberg monkeyflower (Diplacus vandenbergensis). 

A third project is studying the impacts of European sea lavender (Limonium duriusculum) on the endangered salt marsh bird’s beak (Chloropyron maritimum ssp. maritimum) at the Carpinteria Salt Marsh. We have been studying the pollinators of both the lavender and the salt marsh bird’s beak, and found that the European lavender supports non-native insects, while the bird’s beak supports very different native pollinators. Now we’re removing the lavender, in partnership with Tidal Influence, and seeing what happens. 

Lastly, we have a bug project on San Clemente Island. The Navy wanted a general invertebrate survey, which we’re doing — but with an ecological twist. We are using techniques that will allow us to learn what plants these invertebrates are using, so that we can better understand food webs and networks that will inform habitat restoration. We are also surveying in standardized ways that we can repeat in the future for comparison after the climate changes further, or restoration actions have been taken. We are also constructing pollinator networks around five different rare plants on the island – by knowing “who’s on what” we can manipulate other plants to help conserve the rare one.

H: What is the most rewarding thing about working in your field? The most challenging?

D: The most rewarding thing is that I feel like I am making a difference for the environment, which I am very passionate about. The most challenging is probably the current administration, and anyone who wants to weaken environmental protections. 

H: What advice can you offer to students?

D: Find your niche. Figure out what you are good at and most interested in, and go after that. And be persistent!

H: Thank you, Denise!

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  1. I have about a quart of Torry Pine seeds. If anyone can use them in their Nursery project. I will send them to you.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Denise! I appreciate hearing about your path and work thus far. I’m also interested in plant-insect interactions, and wonder about pursuing it further through education. I currently work in native plant landscape design. Will look forward to learning from all of those included in this exciting new blog!

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