'Beat Back Buffelgrass' takes on urgency

Buffelgrass (Source: NPS photo/Bethany Hontz)
Buffelgrass (Source: NPS photo/Bethany Hontz)
Published: Jan. 26, 2018 at 11:02 PM MST|Updated: Jan. 29, 2018 at 5:29 AM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Beat Back Buffelgrass month begins Saturday, Jan. 27, and runs through March 4.

Hundreds of volunteers will fan out in various hotspots in the next month to eradicate as much buffelgrass as they can.

Buffelgrass is a non-native plant introduced to southern Arizona from Africa nearly a hundred years ago to use as cattle feed. It grows fast and thick which is good for cattle but as it turns out, is a disaster for the Sonoran Desert.

It has proven to be an enemy for the giant Saguaro, a symbol of the Southwest, competing for water sources and in most cases, winning the battles.

The grass grows so thick, Saguaro can't grow or reproduce.

It's a dry plant most of the year, also making it a serious wildfire threat. When it grows next to homes, it burns so hot, it can quickly engulf a residence.

The threat to the desert is why it has a full time staff member who deals solely with buffelgrass issues.

Julia Rowe came to Tucson from Hawaii.

She says in the past couple of years, they have made a significant amount of progress in managing the growth.

"We will never eradicate buffelgrass," she said. "It needs to get to a point where we can push back enough where it can be like a general maintenance issue like a roadway."

The problems caused by the plant were ignored for years until the 1990s when it became apparent it was causing damage.

Still, it wasn't until recently that a concerted effort among several environmental groups and hundreds of volunteers began to coalesce around the problem and look for ways to solve it.

It can be sprayed in large remote areas, which is effective but there's not much money for those costly efforts.

That's why volunteers taking the plants out by their roots, one by one by hand, has become the most effective tool.

"Education is definitely key," Rowe said.

The plants are difficult to pull out by hand "unless there's a lot of moisture," said JB Cordova, from Tucson Clean and Beautiful.

He suggests a shovel or pick to make sure the plant comes out by the roots.

"If you leave the roots, they grow back very quickly," he said.

The plants can be killed by spraying them with weed killer but only when they are green during monsoon.

Last year, on July 4, a fire was ignited by fireworks on A-Mountain, Sentinel Peak.

The fire spread rapidly because of buffelgrass, which in turn damaged 279 saguaro cactus.

Rowe inspected and tagged every one of the saguaro for a study of the effects of fire on them.

"The temperatures are going to be significantly hotter than anything the cactus would have to deal with," she said. "It burns at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit."

It will be the first time someone has done a detailed study on the effects of buffelgrass fueled fires on the cactus.

"I'm going to continue to visit those saguaros over the next several years and record how many die," she said. "So we have a sense of mortality from fire."

The kickoff begins Saturday, Jan. 27 at 8:30 with Mayor Jonathan Rothschild reading a proclamation.

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