Regulatory Services

Steve Compton: On dirt roads, sweet tea and invasive species

The only creatures who are happy to hear that Stephen Compton has retired are invasive species.

As a top hand for the Department of Plant Industry, Compton drew a bead on some of the most wanted criminal critters in the state, managing statewide programs for fire ants, invasive species eradication and the noxious weed survey.

But it didn’t start out that way. Compton’s first career was in the plant nursery business.

“I had 30 years in agriculture, mostly greenhouses. Happy Plants Nursery in Easley,” Compton said. “Making a nursery go 30 years without losing — it is quite an accomplishment. But with fuel costs and the competition from box stores, it was time to move on.”

With that first-hand industry experience and a biology degree from Presbyterian College, Compton had exactly the background Regulatory Services was looking for. Managing the federal quarantine on fire ants was his first assignment.

“My first month was investigation, then I worked on outreach — talking to people ensure they knew what the rules were,” he said. “I don’t think there’s hardly a dirt road I haven’t traveled in South Carolina.”

That focus on outreach became his watchword from then on.

“A lot of people are afraid of regulatory because we’re a government agency,” Compton said. “But I’ve found that only a small handful have been resistant. Others will invite you in and want to give you glass of sweet tea.

“Outreach was one of most powerful tools. I told other states that all the time,” he said. “Working with Extension was another key. David Coyle has been instrumental. I can’t say enough nice things about what Extension has done for us. Other state regulators, too. People are more likely to cooperate when they see that cooperation among us.”


Grants administration and cooperative agreements were an integral part of Compton’s work, including funding from state and federal sources to run the Cogongrass Tasks Force.

“That is a terribly invasive species, Compton said. “We have had success containing and eliminating infestation, but you can’t let your guard down. You can get a new contamination simply from road construction People bringing in dirty equipment from another location will sometimes have a tiny piece of cogongrass. It only takes a small amount of rhizome to start a new one.”

As he retires with his wife on their Oconee County farm, Compton knows the fight against invasives will go on.

“Every day it is something new,” he said “A lot of that is because of global trade. We get a lot of invasives from Asia where the climate is similar to ours, but here there are no natural predators. That make it difficult to control them.

“I could give you a list a mile long of agencies and people I’ve worked with. It’s not me. I’m not that smart. But I know who the smart people are and I know how to reach them,” Compton said. “I was thinking, I wonder if anyone will continue this work. but I see this younger group now and they are far smarter than me. They’re on the ball. They may be the ones who save us old folks.”