August 2nd, 2019

Mountain sandwort in a rock crack

Mountain Sandwort

Hikers that have visited the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks in the summer months are likely familiar with summit stewards. Constantly interacting with visitors on the region’s busiest summits, they are striking figures in an already dramatic landscape. Perhaps less known, but no less important, is the Adirondack High Peaks Summit Stewardship Program’s Dr. Norton Miller botany steward. Focusing primarily on alpine surveying, the botany steward spends most of their time traveling between 17 of the 21 alpine vegetation carrying summits in the Adirondacks to study plots of vegetation.

Being that alpine vegetation is so low to the ground, the botany steward has to get up close and personal, using magnifying glasses and other tools to help determine what species they are looking at in each plot. It can be grueling, inch-by-inch work, but the results gives the Summit Stewardship Program critical knowledge. Not only can they better understand which areas need protection, but they also can build a comprehensive image of the biodiversity and health of the alpine zone. In the face of major challenges such as climate change and high use in the High Peaks region, the data that the botany steward generates provides important insights into how different factors may be impacting this fragile ecosystem.

The botany steward studying alpine vegetationSo how does the botany steward find these plots of vegetation? Some are obvious, but others are determined using an aerial survey. A Global Imaging Survey (GIS) is used to determine where plots of alpine vegetation exist, and a number of them are then selected for study based on a random stratified sampling procedure. In the field, the botany steward carries a tablet listing plots for study and fills in which of the 27 rare, threatened, or endangered species are found there, their population density, and other details about vegetation health and prevalence. This data is collected for a key partner of the Summit Stewardship Program: the New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP). The NYNHP tracks data on rare species and uses this information to inform land managers, scientists, the public, and more in order to help protect New York State’s biodiversity. All of this highlights the critical role that the botany steward fulfills in promoting the protection of the alpine zone and furthering public knowledge of one of New York State’s most valuable, and fragile, treasures.

If you see Ryan, our 2019 Dr. Norton Miller botany steward, feel free to ask him more about the alpine zone. His unique perspective and personal experiences above treeline offer valuable insights into this special piece of New York ecology. The botany steward position was supported this year by the family of Dr. Norton Miller, a well-known New York State bryologist who spent many years surveying alpine summits in the Adirondacks. If you too would like to support Ryan’s work, and the Summit Stewardship Program as a whole, you can do so here.

Photo Credit: Ben Brosseau