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Grass Attack 

Pick up a shovel for Beat Back Buffelgrass Day

Carolyn Vemulapalli wants to wipe out buffelgrass.

A few months back, she teamed up with a crew of volunteers to eradicate the invasive species in her Tucson Park West-1 neighborhood. Decked out in a lime-green safety vest and with a shovel in her gloved hands, she yanks the weed out of the Globe Berry Wash. It's tough work, but it's vital—and Vemulapalli says too many people don't understand why.

"The information is pretty readily available but convincing people that it is important and that it is their problem is the real issue," Vemulapalli said.

If you're among those who don't understand why buffelgrass is such a big deal, here's the lowdown: It's an invasive species originally imported to the region as quick-growing grass to feed cattle during a late 1800s drought. It has now become a menace to the Southwest because it crowds out native species and dries out in dry weather, creating a major fire hazard. Buffelgrass fires, which can climb 20 feet in height at temperatures hot enough to melt aluminum, now account for 40 percent of all brushfires that local fire departments respond to, according to Neal Kittelson, invasive species project manager with the Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordination Center.

Even worse, after the fire, buffelgrass grows back stronger, choking out other plants. And it is extraordinarily fertile: A mature buffelgrass plant can drop off 5,000 seeds every single time it blossoms and these plants can live for up to 20 years, with the seeds being viable in the soil for at least four years.

There are two ways to eradicate buffelgrass: You have to yank it from the ground or hit it with a herbicide while it's still green. That's an expensive process with a limited window, but Kittelson tries to work with neighborhood groups to keep the weed under control. He says the effort "can't eradicate it but it is manageable"—making it less of a public threat.

The anti-buffelgrass brigade will be out in full force this weekend with Beat Back Buffelgrass day on Saturday, Jan. 24, as volunteers spread out across the community to do their best to wipe out buffelgrass where they find it.

Tori Stypula joined a volunteer crew to yank buffelgrass last year. As someone who likes to volunteer around the community, the former Marine feels like her motto has gone from "Duty, Honor, Country,"to "Duty, Honor, and County."

"We love Tucson," she says. "Got to protect it to preserve it."

Learn how you can join a team to help with Beat Back Buffelgrass Day by visiting buffelgrass.org.

More by Razanne Chatila

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