Arizonans Even the Score for Underdog Trees, Plants
TUCSON -- These people get their hands dirty to save lives.
More than 500 volunteers have dedicated their Saturday mornings to digging out and removing invasive giant reeds that threaten native desert plants and trees in Sabino Canyon.
The non-native reeds monopolize the canyon’s water source, stealing life from its neighbors. The invaders suck up four times as much hydration as their surrounding native plants. Of the three types of threatening grasses -- buffelgrass, giant reeds and green fountain grass -- giant reeds are the most ecologically-damaging to Sabino Canyon.
But devoted Tucsonans are evening the score for the underdogs.
“Some of my favorite native plants like Ash trees are getting choked out by these invasive grasses,” said Tucson volunteer Marcus Jernigan, who has been on more than 100 grass removal outings throughout Arizona. “I don’t think it’s right for one species to be pushing out and killing all of the rest. It creates monocultures and hurts diversity. So I like working in the most problematic areas -- where the need is greatest. That way, I can see the immediate effects. It’s a satisfying emotion, feeling like I’m rescuing them.”
Rescue missions are no easy task. Giant reeds -- or Arundo donax -- grow 20 feet high and have deeply-embedded roots that are cumbersome to remove. Teams of five to eight people are needed for each cluster of Arundo stands. “It’s hard work, but it’s worth it,” Ashley McGhee, a junior at Sahuaro high school, said.
In addition to saving plants and trees, reed removal volunteers are also reviving wildlife. Giant reeds endanger waterfowl that depend on the bugs and insects in riparian zones for food. A riparian zone is the area between land and a stream. It is a rare ecological niche in Arizona’s desert climate.
“(Sabino Canyon) is an important area for birds,” Kendall Kroesen of the Tucson Audubon Society said. “The riparian habitat makes up less than 1 percent of Arizona, and the giant reeds are out-competing the native grasses that feed birds in these areas.”
Total eradication of the canyon’s giant reeds is an undertaking. Sabino Canyon is completely littered with them, and the reed removal project is expected to take at least five years. Additionally, if even a fraction of an Arundo donax’s root is left in the ground, it will regenerate quickly.
But Sabino Canyon is not beyond repair.
“We were told that (the reed infestation) was too big of a problem to try to fix. That there was nothing we could do about it, ” project coordinator Mark Hengesbaugh said. “But my wife Jean and I said, ‘Hey, we can get volunteers to help out.’ So we set things in motion, and the response has been great.”
At the season’s end, volunteers logged 2,842 hours in nine outings. They have removed 24,680 gallons of Arundo donax roots and 895 bundles of canes from Sabino Canyon. If these individuals had received payment for their work, the equivalent value in wages would exceed $56, 800.
“One thing that has surprised me from the beginning is how hard our volunteers work,” Hengesbaugh said. “None of them seem to volunteer in order to chat in the beautiful surroundings. The (people) that come out work really hard.”
The project has been a community effort. Major contributors include the Tucson Audubon Society, Arizona Rivers, the Sabino Canyon Volunteer Naturalists and members of the Arizona Master Watershed Steward program (an extension service from the University of Arizona).
High school students, including Catalina Foothills football players and Sahuaro Interact Club members, have also been pitching in.
“Seeing how selfless high school kids are has been inspiring,” said volunteer Dan Wells, who co-advises the Sahuaro Interact Club. “My generation wasn’t nearly as giving. I mean, these are kids who get up real early on Saturday to help out their community. These are dedicated, selfless individuals.”
Wells currently teaches math at Sahuaro high school after serving more than 20 years in the United States Air Force.
“Social change starts with the willingness to get involved and make positive choices,” Anne Green of SCVN said. “Once you start, it snowballs.”
The project’s season concluded on Mar. 1 and will start again in November 2009. To inquire about volunteering, contact Mark and Jean Hengesbaugh at firstname.lastname@example.org.