USA — Buffelgrass has become the region’s number one natural enemy. And from Sahuarita to Oro Valley to Marana, municipalities are moving forward to eradicate the invasive grass, which has the potential to destroy the Sonoran Desert.
Experts say the non-native grass chokes off native plants from essential nutrients, but the greatest threat is the growing potential for fire.
Until the introduction of buffelgrass for cattle pasture and erosion control, the lack of grasslands made the desert immune to fires.
But the spread of the drought-adaptive grass changed the equation.
Gary Biamonte, center, and Julie Vargo dig out buffelgrass around a rock outcropping in Saguaro National Park’s Rincon Mountain unit. Volunteers and staffers worked Friday to remove the non-native grass, which the park staff estimates covers 2,000 acres, mostly in remote, rugged wilderness areas”Buffelgrass seems to pose the greatest fire threat,” said Jennifer Christelman, Marana Environmental Engineering Division manager.
Local governments, scientists, business leaders and environmentalists are engaged in an effort to push buffelgrass eradication toward the top of the list of regional public priorities.
Marana, Oro Valley and Sahuarita have stepped up efforts to identify areas concentrated with buffelgrass, plan its removal, and educate town employees and residents about the danger it poses.
Marana organized a weed pull March 1 and called it “Eradication Day.”
Similar efforts are under way in Sahuarita, said Dave Burnett, Public Works Department streets superintendent. Aresidents’ volunteer group is being formed and soon will begin a monthly removal effort.
But much of Sahuarita’s buffelgrass is out of the town’s jurisdiction. Burnett said the swaths of grass are west of Interstate 19, near the mine tailings.
Manual removal is more time-consuming and less effective than spraying, Betancourt said. And burning buffelgrass only kills the blades and encourages growth.
n other areas, spraying is nearly complete on the western side of Tumamoc Hill on Tucson’s West Side, and in the Rincon and Tucson mountain districts of Saguaro National Park.
The three towns have not determined the costs nor have they allocated money directly for buffelgrass-removal. The costs of current eradication projects are being absorbed in the towns’ public-works budgets.
However, the region’s removal costs are expected to be in the millions, Betancourt said.
Some estimates put the cost of eradication at $50 for every roadside acre and more than $1,000 for every acre of open land. But the true costs of eradication are unknown, Betancourt added.
Doing nothing, however, is not an option, Betancourt said. Moreover, doing nothing will cost more in the long run if the buffelgrass-fueled fires damage or destroy property.
“The consequences are dire and costly,” he said.
Proponents of eradication contend that buffelgrass threatens not only the environment but the county’s economic vitality.
Tourism, real estate values and jobs are directly tied to saguaros and the lush desert landscape, said Betancourt: If the desert landscape disappears, so does the economy.
In the meantime, “buffelgrass is kicking butt,” he said.
Buffelgrass is commonly seen along roadways. But thick concentrations of the grass are encroaching on residential developments, resorts and commercial centers on the urban fringes.
Government is not alone in trying to eradicate the desert invader. Neighborhood groups and individuals have created weed-whacking crews to remove the grass.
“The tidal wave of buffelgrass in our beautiful environment must be stopped, and only individual stewards doing their part, protecting their little corner of the desert land, will ensure survival of our native plants,” said Foothills resident Monica Surfaro Spigelman, a member of the Sin Vacas Weed Wacker Patrol.
There is no doubt buffelgrass is a spreading threat, said Kevin Kincaid, fire-prevention specialist and inspector with Rural/Metro Fire Department. The department covers the Foothills, the Northwest, the unincorporated South Side and Sahuarita.
He said the large splotches of buffelgrass have spread across the southern slope of the Catalina Mountains and are found on many corners on the South Side. And it’s getting worse, Kincaid said.
A destructive fire on the mountains “is just a dry-lightning strike away,” he said.
And the scenario for a buffelgrass fire in populated areas would be horrific, Betancourt said buffelgrass is a genuine threat. But he believes it can be beaten.
A multigovernment coordinating group must be created and local governments must fund eradication efforts, he said.
“It’s beyond discussion and debate,” he said. “It’s action time.”