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In Arizona, Some Retirees Caught In Never-Ending Battle With Invasive Species

Jan 25, 2013
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We go now to Arizona, a magnet for retirees, and for some the answer to the question how should I spend my spare time is this: How about swinging a pick axe in the desert? NPR's Ted Robbins sent this postcard from Ironwood Forest National Monument.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: This must be Gary Borax's idea of a good time because he keeps coming back.

GARY BORAX: I've probably been out here 30, 40 times over the years and nearly half of those buffel grass-related.

ROBBINS: The former software developer is hacking away at a clump of tall brown buffel grass, a species from Africa introduced by the government decades ago as forage for cattle. Now, it's crowding out the native plants. Another one of those stories of good intentions gone bad. This clump is stuck between prickly pear cactus and an ironwood tree.

BORAX: They always seem to grow in heavy vegetation. They're hard to get at.

ROBBINS: And it keeps growing back. Buffel grass is all over southern Arizona, which could make this effort feel a bit Sisyphean.

JOHN SCHEURING: Not if you take it in small chunks.

ROBBINS: John Scheuring is a retired plant scientist who's leading the effort.

SCHEURING: Basically, our group has adopted this little mountain range, and we revisit this area a couple times a week. And so it becomes familiar territory.

ROBBINS: Their little mountain range is 1,500 acres in the 188,000-acre Ironwood Forest National Monument, northwest of Tucson. Today's volunteers are mostly with the Dove Mountain Hikers out of Tucson. They're from New York, Chicago, Canada. We're at an abandoned airstrip on public land. By airstrip, I really mean a gravel scar.

As we walk over the airstrip, we come across small basins volunteers have dug to hold what little rain comes down here. Knee-high trees are growing: ironwood, paloverde, ocotillo. Gary Borax has been coming here since the project began.

BORAX: You know, it doesn't look all that great now, but you should've seen it four years ago. It was just stripped of stone and natural desert.

ROBBINS: The natural Sonoran Desert is actually pretty diverse. Buffel grass also threatens that diversity because it burns hot. If a fire starts here, it'll spread quickly to cactus, like the giant saguaro, which are not adapted to fire. John Scheuring says he's starting to feel some satisfaction after coming back over and over again.

SCHEURING: We're starting to see black-throated sparrows starting to nest in the trees on the restoration site itself. And we saw black-tailed rattlesnakes last year, meaning that there are rodents starting to come back in. And so little by little the desert is healing itself and we're just helping it along.

ROBBINS: When they could be relaxing.

Well, but I mean, geez, you're standing out here in the desert with a pickax. It's - how easy is that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You want to try it?


ROBBINS: Not this time. But I admire the dedication. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.



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