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While what they did was awful, the alleged saguaro hackers have nothing on 'progress'

One finds that one cannot approve of taking an ax to saguaro cactuses, as a couple local delinquents did a couple of weeks ago along the Rillito. One wishes, as my husband said while examining the suspects' mug-shots, that there were some way to impress upon them how much less they're worth than the plants they allegedly killed.

On the other hand, worse things have happened to the native vegetation, and nobody has gone to jail over it. Quite the contrary.

As the earthmovers grind away at the Sonoran Desert, saguaros die all the time. They and the other plants around them, and the crushed and suffocated small animals living underground--better not think too much about that--die en masse so that people who move here can have faster commutes and more fun and, coincidentally, so that rich men can get richer. None of this activity is against the law: In fact, it's laudable. It answers basic human needs.

People who move to the ever-metastasizing outer boundaries of the city need to get to work and stores fast, or their quality of life gets sucky. People need to play golf, and they need to do it near their homes. Developers need to answer these pressing human demands. In short, fish gotta swim, and birds gotta fly. Loss of habitat means they just don't do it around here anymore.

Lots of desert vegetation is toppled and dumped mangled into trucks, although there is occasional disapproval of that sort of thing. Pima County caught holy hell from the feds after blading out 113 ironwood trees along North Thornydale Road in 2000, and somebody even bitched about the 18 saguaros county road crews mowed down when they widened East River Road between First and Campbell avenues. Hey, they salvaged more than 250 plants, half of which may have even survived.

Saguaros taller than 23 feet have a less than 44 percent chance of taking hold after even the most careful transplantation, according to a short-term 2002 UA study. That means that the granddaddy cactus recently taken from the site on the southwest corner of East Camp Lowell Drive and North Swan Road, for example, is probably dying in its very slow, stoic way somewhere right now. As the brush and trees were ripped out of the big lot, it stood alone, carefully fenced around, and for a while, we thought they might build around it. What a great thing to do! But no.

For a particularly pitiful example of saguaro death, check out the cactus on the northeast corner of Fifth Street and Swan Road. It's been withering at the tips for years, and this summer, its shriveled crown finally slumped over like a woolen nightcap. There's your noble civic symbol, your icon of the desert.

But if you want to really make yourself sick over cereus, take a drive up Sabino Canyon Road and look up past the Immaculate Heart Novitiate to the development called Sabino Mountain. In the late '90s, a California developer--who called the project "a labor of love"--moved a million cubic yards of rock, taking 10 feet off the top of the "mountain" to make space for roads and view lots. Since the hill is basically a big heap of alluvial fill, the rubble cannonballed into everything below, gouging holes and notches in the hundreds of saguaros on the sides of the hill (as shown here), while shearing some completely off their bases.

This picture was taken in late 2001, while Pepper-Viner was building out 73 lots on top of the hill. The subdivision is now gated, so an update on this particular cactus is not available. The richly avalanching erosion on the inner fold of the hills is easily visible from the road near the novitiate, however, and with binoculars, you can see the deformed and blackened bases of the downslope cactuses. (The best view of the overall excavation is looking north from Speedway Boulevard and Pantano Road.)

Once again, the devastation was logical and necessary: Rich people need to be higher than poor people. My dogs understand this principle perfectly--the one who snags the place on the couch instantly has more status than the one on the floor.

So when our civic leaders roll their eyes to the heavens over the evil cactus-hackers, remember--they only got three saguaros and a mesquite. By our standards, that's nothing.

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