Non-Native Weeds Get Whacked in Southwest

Doug (right) and Brad Siegel of Sonoran Desert Weedwhackers i i

Doug (right) and Brad Siegel of Sonoran Desert Weedwackers use a 14-pound steel bar to uproot buffelgrass, a weed. Ted Robbins, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ted Robbins, NPR
Doug (right) and Brad Siegel of Sonoran Desert Weedwhackers

Doug (right) and Brad Siegel of Sonoran Desert Weedwackers use a 14-pound steel bar to uproot buffelgrass, a weed.

Ted Robbins, NPR

Many wildfires in the Southwest have grown much more dangerous because of the spread of non-native grasses. These grasses grow thicker and burn hotter than native desert plants. The threat has led to serious weed-whacking in the Arizona desert.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

For fire season in the southwest, people aren't just worried about the record draught. They also fear hot-burning weeds that are changing the desert eco-system.

As NPR's Ted Robbins reports from Tucson, some intrepid south westerners are taking the problem into their own gloved hands.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

Picture the perfect day in the Arizona desert, the one in all the tourism ads. Blue sky, billowing clouds, and a hillside filled with giant saguaro cacti, the tall ones, with arms.

Except, instead of relaxing at a spa or hiking a trail, Doug Siegel is leading a group of Sonoran Desert Weed Whackers. That's what they call themselves, up a rocky hillside in Tucson Mountain Park. They're wielding five-foot long steel bars and trash bags. Their target, a straw-colored knee high plant called buffel grass. Their goal: to leave no weed behind.

Mr. DOUG SIEGEL (Sonoran Desert Weed Whackers): We have a team of people, one holding the bag to stuff it, another person grabs the plant, holds it back so it exposes where the base of the plant is, pulls the plants out.

ROBBINS: I gotta tell you, this seems kind of obsessive to me.

Mr. SIEGEL: Not when you look at the big picture.

ROBBINS: The big picture, says Julio Bettencourt, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is a threat to the entire Sonoran desert.

Mr. JULIO BETTENCOURT (United States Geological Survey): I'm pretty convinced that what you're looking at is actually the unhinging of a unique American ecosystem.

ROBBINS: Here's why. Native plants like the saguaro, the paloverde, and the ironwood tree, grow fairly far apart. That keeps fire from spreading. Buffel grass is native to Africa and south Asia. It was introduced here in the 1960's on purpose to control erosion and elsewhere in the southwest to feed cattle. It spreads quickly and grows in between the native plants, almost engulfing them.

Mr. BETTENCOURT: It's extremely flammable. And it introduces a fine, hot fuel in a desert that was previously considered fireproof.

ROBBINS: Last year, another invasive plant, fountain grass, helped spread the 250,000 acre Cave Creek fire through the desert north of Phoenix. That fire killed the world's largest saguaro.

Eventually, Julio Bettencourt says, the desert could be transformed into an African grassland that burns frequently. But he thinks too much is at stake for people to let that happen.

Mr. BETTENCOURT: Once this landscape starts to burn you're going to see tourist revenues go down, and you're going to see, probably, property values go down as well.

ROBBINS: Some local resorts have agreed to pay a government fee to help control buffel grass, and the state of Arizona has declared it a noxious weed. Even cattle growers haven't objected to its eradication.

The Sonoran Desert Weed Whackers have been at it for six years, lugging steel bars and 50-pound bags of uprooted buffel grass. Volunteers like retired high school biology teacher Marilyn Hansen have helped clear about 10,000 acres.

This is not volunteerism for sissies, is it?

Ms. MARILYN HANSEN (Retired biology teacher, Arizona): No, it's not. It's a workout.

ROBBINS: Similar groups are working in other areas, including Saguaro National Park. But as the Park Service spends money eradicating the weed, the Department of Agriculture is working to develop a hardier strain of buffel grass to feed cattle in Texas.

Julio Bettencourt says the agencies have to start working together.

Mr. BETTENCOURT: It's not controllable by any one group. It's all for one, one for all, or not at all.

ROBBINS: Fountain grass is still being used as an ornamental shrub, so the other goal is to educate people to stop planting new invasive weeds while whacking the existing weeds before they catch fire.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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