Bonfire of the Superweeds

In the Sonoran Desert, good intentions combust

  • In the Sonoran Desert, good intentions combust

    DARRYL WEBB PHOTO COURTESY EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE
  • Buffelgrass surrounds a burned saguaro on Tumamoc Hill in Tucson. The non-native grass thrives after a fire, crowding out native vegetation

    CHRIS HINKLE
  • Buffelgrass fire in Tucson

    COURTESY KEVIN KINCAID, RURAL/METRO
  • An area near Hermosillo, Sonora, where native vegetation has been cleared and buffelgrass planted

    ALBERTO BURQUEZ, INSTITUTO DE ECOLOGIA, UNVERSIDAD NACIONAL AUTONOMA DE MEXICO
  • Mapped distribution of buffelgrass in southern Arizona and northern Sonora. Actual distribution is greater: Mapping has occurred mostly along roads, and some cities, including Phoenix have bufflegrass but have done little mapping of it.

    AARYN OLSSON, UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA; DATA PROVIDED BY ASDM INVADERS, AZ-SONORA DESERT MUSEUM, SONORAN DESERT WEEDWACKERS, ORGAN PIPE AND NATIONAL MONUMENTS, USGS DESERT LABORATORY CORONADO N.F., SOUTHWEST EXOTIC PLANT CLEARINGHOUSE
  • Invasive fountaingrass, a relative of buffelgrass, for sale on the shelves of a Tucson Home Depot

    MICHELLE NIJHUIS
  • Buffelgrass grows up a slope, crowding native vegetation and creating a fire bridge to the Sabino Mountain community in Tucson

    CHRIS HINKLE
 

Page 2

Buffelgrass, however, has at least one advantage over its fellow desert invaders: While cheatgrass and red brome are annuals, fed by winter rains, buffelgrass is perennial. It responds to rainfall at almost any time of year, and bulks up as it sprouts and dries, able to fuel fires not just during a particular season but throughout the calendar. It can even flame up when green and by some estimates can burn at more than 1,300 degrees, literally hot enough to peel rocks.

In the 1940s, Burquez found, fires on the outskirts of the Mexican capital of Hermosillo were all but unknown. In the 1960s, newspapers began to report sporadic fires, and today, hundreds of fires break out on the edge of the city every year. "You see the very same patterns everywhere in arid Sonora," he says. The national telephone company lost so many poles to buffelgrass fires that it now sheathes its Sonoran poles in sleeves of sheet metal.

Today, the best fire protection in Sonora comes on four legs. "If somehow cattle were to disappear, we'd have a huge problem," says Burquez. Though cattle inspired the planting of buffelgrass, their appetites also contain it and keep Sonoran fires generally small, low to the ground, and easily extinguishable. Without heavy pruning by cows, says Burquez, buffelgrass would grow even denser and thicker, able to stoke still hotter, higher, and more destructive fires. Just like in Tucson. But we'll get to that in a minute.


In the early 1990s, from about 2,000 feet in the air, Sandra Lanham spotted the difference in the desert. Lanham was piloting her 1956 single-engine Cessna between her home in Tucson and northern Mexico, where she helps researchers survey endangered pronghorn, blue whales, and hundreds of other species. As she floated over the arid valleys of northern Sonora, she sighted something less charismatic, and more disturbing.

"I started to notice that the desert, in many, many places, was being bulldozed and planted," she says. "I knew something huge was going on, but I couldn't really see what was happening."

The bush pilot borrowed a video camera, which she handed to her passengers. "I literally didn't know how to turn it on," she says. She eventually collected footage not only from the air but also on the ground, showing bulldozers toppling columnar cacti like so many giant Gumby dolls.

Through flight after flight, Lanham saw that vast reaches of pale desert soil had been cleared and covered with buffelgrass. Once the native plants were felled and replaced, Lanham learned, they had little chance of recovery.

Working with a $500 budget, Lanham and her colleagues pieced their footage of the expanding pastures into an unvarnished 10-minute video. (A few years later, Lanham's work as an environmental pilot would win her a MacArthur Fellowship, but these were leaner times.) They made 125 copies and distributed them to potential converts in southern Arizona.

To many north of the border, the video was a shocking glimpse of an altered future. "I don't think anyone here recognized the scale of it," says Lanham. "I don't think they could have, unless they were flying in an airplane."

Buffelgrass seeds have long strayed across the international border, carried in tires, trade goods, or the clothing of illegal border crossers. But as in Texas and Mexico, buffelgrass was also invited into Arizona. From the 1940s until the 1980s, the federal Soil Conservation Service and other agencies planted the grass in test plots, where its unimpressive performance prevented more widespread introduction. Stuart Bengson, the former head of reclamation for ASARCO Inc., says the mining company used buffelgrass for erosion control at its copper mine south of Tucson until at least the late 1980s.

Buffelgrass did edge out of these original plantings and into native desert, but for years, the species was only a whisper in the desert ecosystem. Many biologists assumed it had little strength in the colder climes of southern Arizona.

"We thought that maybe (southern Arizona) wouldn't be like Sonora," says ecologist Van Devender, an expert on Sonoran Desert flora. In 1992, when he was working on a plant guide for the Tucson Mountains, "we had buffelgrass in there, but I remember writing that it wasn't very common, that it was just along roadsides," he says. "Well, right after that, it took off."

Sue Rutman, a botanist at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument southwest of Tucson, says much of the blame for the buffelgrass boom lies with the climate. "Buffelgrass used to behave more like an annual grass in Arizona, because it would freeze in the winter," she says. "But with the warming trend we've had since the 1980s, there are fewer freezes, so buffelgrass has become this big bunchgrass that reproduces a lot more." The bigger the plant, the less vulnerable it is to freezing, and the more powerful its cycle of increased growth and increased spread.

High Country News Classifieds
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.