Tumamoc Hill restoration will remove invasive buffelgrass, stem wildfires
Rep. Raúl Grijalva pushes increased federal support in fight against invasive weed
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the size of the announced grant for buffelgrass removal.
A one-year $100,000 project will help remove invasive buffelgrass from Tumamoc Hill and "A" Mountain, but millions of dollars in long-term funding are still needed to eradicate the fire-prone weed from near Tucson, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva said Wednesday.
The effort to cull the plants from Tucson Mountain Park and Sentinel Peak Park, part of funding for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, is the beginning of an effort focused on thousands of acres covered with wildfire-stoking buffelgrass. The grant is expected to lead to permanent funding for buffelgrass removal across the Tucson Basin and Sonoran Desert, Grijalva said.
The museum will receive $50,000 in federal funding, which they're matching with $50,000 from other non-federal grants and part of their operating budget that covers staff salaries.
The city of Tucson and Pima County have led efforts over the past two decades to remove buffelgrass — which is native to grasslands with sparse trees in Africa and some countries in Asia — because it easily ignites and fuels wildfires that damage and even kill saguaros and other parts of the desert ecosystem.
The grass is not considered an invasive species by the federal government, but Grijalva described the removal effort as a “demonstration” that will show the U.S. Department of Interior that it should be listed as one, with annual federal funding to eliminate the plants here.
The Tumamoc restoration "will give us the basis to say 'let's do this every year' and get this into revolving funding," Grijalva said. "Once we get it listed, more possibilities open up."
During its half century in Tucson, buffelgrass has fueled major wildfires, including the Bighorn Fire in 2020 in the Santa Catalina Mountains and a fire that started on July 4, 2017, and scarred Sentinel Peak — "A" Mountain — with charred, black saguaros that are still visible today.
The Democratic congressman announced the grant at a press conference at the base of Sentinel Peak on Wednesday.
Grijalva pushes $4M for buffelgrass fight
Grijalva said he's asking Congress to give another $4 million, which he said could clear more than 5,000 acres of buffelgrass at just a tenth of the cost it took to contain the Bighorn Fire, according to a 2021 memo from the congressman.
The U.S. Forest Service spent more than $40 million to prevent the Bighorn Fire from spreading in 2020, but the demonstration project is expected to lead to a “tide-turning effort” to remove buffelgrass in Saguaro National Park West.
While the plants can be removed with herbicides or by being pulled out at the root, most of the funding will pay for careful removal of the grass on Tumamoc Hill, one of the earliest inhabited areas of Tucson. which has historical and archaeological sites that have to be protected, Kim Franklin, a conservation research scientist at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, said.
“Tumamoc Hill is a very special place in terms of its cultural resources,” Franklin said. “The archeology is just incredible.”
There are about 200 acres of buffelgrass on the mountain to the west of Downtown Tucson, and any effort to remove it can’t involve digging, Franklin said. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum will use most of the grant to hire contractors to use herbicides.
“We have a long-term plan about 10 years out to try and eliminate (buffelgrass),” she said.
Buffelgrass was first introduced to the American Southwest in 1930s by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service to feed cattle and keep soil intact from erosion, according to the National Park Service. It was introduced to Tucson mostly in the 1970s and 1980s for erosion control.
The plant "colonized our landscapes throughout the Southwest and had had devastating effects on our ecosystem," Tucson City Councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz, whose West Side ward includes Sentinel Peak, said Wednesday. "It's all our responsibility in the community to address it," she said.
Although buffelgrass “threatens property and our health by serving as an unnatural fuel for intense fires,” it also “threatens to remake our diverse saguaro-palo verde forests into a monoculture grassland,” Craig Ivanyi, the executive director of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, said at the press conference.
The damage that buffelgrass wreaks on the Sonoran Desert threatens animals and plants alike, Ivanyi said, including the desert tortoises, which eat plants that are unable to grow around the plants, and are threatened by wildfires.
“This is a long-term effort and requires time and commitment,” Ivanyi said about removing the plants. “(The federal funding) is a direct response to community concerns about fire and loss of natural biodiversity in surrounding neighborhoods.”
Efforts are already underway to remove buffelgrass on Tumamoc Hill, just north of Sentinel Peak, and Ivanyi said he hopes that work “becomes a model for buffelgrass control.”
Volunteers pull weeds together
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum “has been involved in this fight against buffelgrass for over 25 years,” Ivanyi said, by coordinating the work of almost 20 different local agencies, businesses and landowners trying to remove the weeds.
Partnerships to remove buffelgrass have been important, but the ones doing most the on-the-ground work, Ivanyi and others said on Wednesday, is the volunteers. Girjalva called them a "consistent force" against buffelgrass and form the "core" of that effort in the Tucson.
The work done by the hundreds of people, trained and directed by the museum, who pull and spray buffelgrass each year "is valued in the thousands of dollars," Franklin said.
Saguaro National Park, which controls land just north of Tucson Mountain Park, has been trying to remove buffelgrass in both their west and east park sections for more than decade, Park Superintendent Leah McGinnis said Wednesday.
More than 200 volunteers help Saguaro National Park that put in more than 2,000 hours each year to help with buffelgrass removal, McGinnis said.
“It is possible to have success and to eradicate buffelgrass,” McGinnis said, but “most importantly, long-term success requires a high-level of community involvement.”
“We all have a role to play,” McGinnis said, which could mean “pulling buffelgrass at your own house, working in the neighborhood to eradicate it where you live and volunteering for any number of organizations around Tucson.”
Pima County has also helped lead volunteer efforts to remove buffelgrass. Since 2000, the county's Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Department has coordinated a program called “weedwhackers” that has cleared “thousands of acres and tons of invasive grass” in Tucson Mountain Park, according to officials.
The county was able to help pool together $2 million in grants this year for buffelgrass removal, County Administrator Jan Lesher said Wednesday, but Grijalva, she said, is “continuing to bring dollars into this region” important for “continued this coordinated effort.”
“It’s those kinds of efforts that let the federal government know we’re in this together and that their dollars coming into this community are extremely well-spent,” Lesher said.
Tucson resident Marcie Shatz has been volunteering with the weedwhackers program for 14 years and said that clearing buffelgrass is “extremely gratifying.”
“We can actually see progress,” she said. “We can look at hillsides and remember that they were pretty much covered with buffel at some point and now they’re buffel-free.”
The federal funding for Tumamoc Hill and any action that helps with the buffelgrass removal is “fantastic,” Shatz said. “We’re trying to preserve a slice of heaven.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the size of the grant for buffelgrass removal.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.