$200k federal boost will speed fight vs. buffelgrass in Saguaro Nat'l Park, Interior deputy says
$200,000 in federal spending will support the removal of buffelgrass in Saguaro National Park, as the U.S. Interior Department is set to invest $10 million to stem wildfires throughout Arizona, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau said during a visit to Tucson on Monday.
The funding will support the wildfire prevention tactic of culling the fire-prone species, along with restoring native plants, Beaudreau said during a stop at the national park on the East Side.
Support for efforts to remove plants that fuel wildfires across Arizona will start to become a fixture in federal infrastructure spending, Beaudreau said, as the Interior Department takes steps to better confront the effects of climate change and drought.
The new bit of funding for buffelgrass removal comes from the $10 million that the Interior Department has on hand this fiscal year to prepare for wildfires by eliminating grasses, shrubs and trees in about 9,700 acres of land across the state, Beaudreau said. The agency is rolling out a five-year plan to prepare to fight more wildfires in the Southwest.
The $200,000 effort will “strengthen” buffelgrass removal via pulling and aerial spraying, Park Superintendent Leah McGinnis said. It’s also expected to “enhance” native plant restoration projects in the national park, where the Interior Department has the most visible presence around Tucson.
Saguaro National Park hires contractors to pull out most of the buffelgrass but also relies on more than 200 volunteers, McGinnis said, who put in more than 2,000 hours each year helping with the removal.
“As you know, the fight against buffelgrass will not end anytime soon,” McGinnis said. “It requires about three to five years of treatment in the same area to begin to see signs of eradication. This requires dedication and perseverance by all of us.”
Buffelgrass is native to grasslands with sparse trees in Africa and some countries in Asia. It easily ignites and fuels wildfires that damage and even kill saguaros and other parts of the desert ecosystem, but the grass is not considered an invasive species by the federal government.
For wildfire prevention nationwide, the Interior Department has $103 million to spend this fiscal year to remove fire-igniting plants from more than 2 million acres of land across the U.S., which would mark a 30% increase from the number of acres treated last year. Out of that funding, $80.9 million is meant scale-up and accelerate the strategic removal of potential wildfire hazards, according to the Interior Department.
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 U.S. Forest Service spent more than $40 million to prevent the Bighorn Fire from spreading in 2020.
The $2.1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in November set aside $1.5 billion for the Interior Department to play a bigger role in preparing its agencies to prevent wildfire, restore any damage and work with the U.S. Forest Service, a Department of Agriculture agency, to research wildfires.
“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to act on climate change and its impacts, including the record drought, which folks here in Arizona know all too well,” he said. “We’ve seen, including earlier this year in Arizona and New Mexico, fires hitting communities earlier than ever in the spring.”
Beaudreau’s visit to the Saguaro National Park East comes a little more than a month after the U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva announced a $100,000 federal grant to accelerate buffelgrass removal on Tumamoc Hill.
The grant that Grijalva talked about in late August was put together with a $50,000 federal match from the most recent appropriations bill to the money raised by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The money Beaudreau announced Monday comes from the infrastructure law.
Beaudreau was welcomed to Tucson by Councilmember Lane Santa Cruz, who represents the West Side on the City Council.
Santa Cruz, who told the Sentinel that she was on the other side of town from her ward because she was attending the event in her capacity as vice mayor, said that the ""planting of buffelgrass was a colonial practice."
"For decades this invasive species has colonized the landscape throughout the Southwest," she said, with the plant "having a devastating effect on our natural ecosystems."
Droughts & wildfires
Arizona’s federal representatives, including Grijalva, were successful, Beaudreau said, at making sure the infrastructure law and the recent Inflation Reduction Act “not only passed in Congress but that they targeted specifically to address the challenges facing the Southwest and Arizona, including the drought, including wildfires and threats to the Colorado River System.”
Beaudreau spoke briefly on the cuts to water allotments from the Colorado River that his department made in early August and which are starting to show impacts in Western states. Historic lows this year in the water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two reservoirs that collect Colorado River water for usage across the Southwest and Northwestern Mecxico, caused the Bureau of Reclamation, an Interior Department agency, to cut Arizona's annual allotment of water from the river by nearly a quarter.
"We really are in a period of unprecedented stress in the Colorado River System," Beaudreau said. "I know (those cuts) hit Arizona very hard. Put of what the Department of Interior is focused on is working with both the Lower Basin and Upper Basin states to make sure everybody is stepping to the plate.
Beaudreau arrived in Tucson as part of a tour of Western states to tout investment by the infrastructure law and the Infrastructure Reduction Act but also to look “at the impacts of climate and sustained drought on all our landscapes in the Southwest.” He been in the state of Washington to talk with major Columbia River water users and said that invasive species are also a problem in the Pacific Northwest.
"(It's) a different landscape, different ecosystems but still facing similar challenges around the impacts of climate change, drought and wildlife habitat loss striking at the heart of local communities," Beaudreau said. "We're seeing the effects of invasive species changing not only landscapes that have sustained people for time immemorial but the threats facing those landscapes. Here, we're facing buffelgrass and the new threat it presents in terms of wildfire potential."
"In the face of climate change and the long drought, buffelgrass has further endangered the Sonoran Desert because it outcompetes vegetation for water and provides fuel for fire," Santa Cruz said.
The Interior Department will work through its agencies it improve its wildfire programs and services. Wildfire-related programs can be found in Interior offices such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service —which manages the Saguaro National Park — and the U.S. Geological Survey
The BIA has a Division of Wildland Fire Management that protects 69 million acres of tribal lands and employs almost 1,500 firefighters and 1,500 hired-as-needed firefighters through the Indian Country Wildland Fire Management program.
In 2021, more than 4,600 wildfires originated on BIA-protected lands, resulting in nearly 400,000 acres burned.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also directs the Department of Agriculture to invest in research in fire science and improve the compensation and working conditions for wildland firefighters, who work for the National Forest Service.
The temporary pay for U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighters will increase to at least $20,000 a year or 50% of annual base salaries because of the infrastructure law, according to a White House fact sheet.
Another $3.1 million from the infrastructure law is meant for the U.S. Forest Service to support "climate-related research towards a better understanding of firefighter mental health, landscape resiliency, and the beneficial uses of prescribed fire, carbon storage, and greenhouse gas and smoke emissions," and another portion of spending will go to the development of "a wildfire risk mapping and mitigation tool" created by the forest service, according to the Department of Interior.
The Coronado National Forest, which controls natural areas in the Catalina Mountains and areas to the south and southeast of Tucson, is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
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.