On Saturday, January 21, Marana will partner with the Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordination Center to host the annual Beat Back Buffelgrass Day. During this regional event, teams will gather at a number of locations to help put a stop to this unwelcome interloper.
Looking out on a picturesque desert landscape filled with saguaro and palo verde, it’s easy to forget how fragile this environment can be. These resilient trees, after all, have evolved to withstand blazing heat and meager precipitation. Every desert dweller knows to steer clear of native trees—those thorns and spines can be vicious. These unique flora and fauna, though, have evolved only to cope with the threats of their own ecosystem. While they’re often impervious to sun and heat, they are nevertheless vulnerable to a few pernicious invasive species. One of those invaders, buffelgrass, threatens to engulf vast stretches of the Sonoran Desert.
In the 1930s, buffelgrass was introduced to southern Arizona to control erosion and provide grazing pasture for cattle. What those early planters didn’t realize, however, was that this weed would quickly proliferate across the desert. With seeds that spread easily with the wind, buffelgrass rapidly became a constant pest in nearly every open space in the region.
As this noxious grass sprouted uncontrollably, it began to challenge native plants for water and nutrients in the soil. Suddenly, trees as sturdy as the saguaro have often found themselves unable to compete with buffelgrass. Where once stood the proud symbol of Arizona, a grassland and saguaro skeleton are all that remain.
With wide stretches of drought-tolerant grass comes also an increased risk of fire. Unlike plants native to the Sonoran desert, buffelgrass burns at a scorching 1,400°F. When these wildfires occur, they destroy acres of cactus, which in turn threatens the habitat of southern Arizona’s unique animal life. The desert tortoise and pygmy owl both depend on these plants for food and shelter, but when wildfires deprive them of these resources, the ripple effects reverberate throughout the ecosystem.
In the mid-2000s, a number of local jurisdictions, recognizing the threat of buffelgrass, combined their efforts to form the Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordination Center. As part of this partnership, Marana joins Oro Valley, Tucson, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Arizona Department of Transportation, and others in a joint effort to rid the region of this pest. Since its inception, SABCC has hosted an annual Beat Back Buffelgrass day in January, with groups gathering at a number of sites to stamp out this weed.
This year, Marana has selected a site in El Rio Park, next to the Santa Cruz River. Buffelgrass is especially damaging when it grows near water. When summer monsoons flood the Santa Cruz, the rushing water disperses buffelgrass seeds downstream, allowing the species to hasten its spread even more. In addition, riparian regions in Arizona foster a complex biodiversity that is harmed by the presence of nonnative species. When buffelgrass invades the banks of the Santa Cruz, cottonwoods, mesquites, and willows find it increasingly difficult to thrive.
Participants in this year’s Beat Back Buffelgrass event can look forward to a productive morning of habitat protection and community spirit. “Every year, I love seeing the folks who come out to help. We all care about protecting this beautiful land, and the time just flies by as we work, laugh, and swap stories,” says Janine Spencer, who is organizing the event in Marana. Janine also encourages volunteers to bring a water bottle, sunscreen, and a hat. At the end of the day, volunteers will walk away with a Beat Back Buffelgrass t-shirt, sticker, and a sense of satisfaction at having helped to protect the desert. To learn more and sign up, visit www.Buffelgrass.org.