While volunteers break their backs digging out buffelgrass in Southern Arizona, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is promoting a cold-resistant strain that will spread it even further. While Saguaro National Park sprays herbicides on buffelgrass with helicopters, Texas calls Pennisetum ciliare its "wonder grass."
Buffelgrass is deliberately grown as cattle feed on millions of acres. A fast-growing, drought-tolerant invasive plant brought over from Africa, buffelgrass chokes out native species, steals their water, and creates a base for 1,400-degree firestorms.
Arizona declared buffelgrass a "noxious weed" in 2007 and prohibits its entry into the state. Across the border Mexican government subsidies fund buffelgrass planting to create pastures out of the Sonoran desert.
While transportation planners study a new Interstate 11 route from Canada to Mexico, el zacate buffel already has its own "Canamex Highway." It comes from Texas and Mexico attached to trucks and cars, in the clothes of smugglers and migrants and tourists, and on the wind. It loves disturbed earth, the edges of roadways, drainages, and the Sonoran Desert climate. Winter freezes used to control its growth, but climate change now makes Southern Arizona a safe haven for the perennial grass.
Following an August 2010 test spraying sections of Tucson Mountain Park by helicopter, an inter-agency report declared that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup "can be used safely with no harm to humans, pets or wildlife when applied properly." However, hundreds of medical studies from journals around the world now dispute those claims.
Glyphosate is now linked to hormone disruption, DNA damage, cancer, birth defects and neurological disorders, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and autism. Children appear to be the most vulnerable. Inert ingredients like polyethoxylated tallow amine (POEA) get less scrutiny than active ingredients. A recent study found that POEA kills human cells.
And it is not just direct exposure to the herbicide that has caused problems. Glyphosate is being found in a growing number of genetically-modified (GM) food sources. The Monsanto Corporation manufactures both Roundup and GM seeds for crops--and conducts the tests the US Environmental Protection Agency relies on.
Oscar L. Garcia's family has ranched in the Avra Valley for almost 200 years. Now 80 years old, Garcia is out on his land working every day and knows when things change. He noticed a change after the 2006 spraying by crop dusters of Tucson Water land along Reservation Road where buffelgrass had been planted in the 1970s for erosion control.
"After it rained some of the cattle forage (bermuda grass) and mesquite trees on my land dried up. I think the stuff they used, the rain carried it to my land. I called them but they said it wasn't possible. But the trees and grass are dead," Garcia said.
Saguaro National Park spent almost $65,000 on aerial spraying with helicopters during the 2014 monsoon season. The park said it would not spray if winds exceeded 5 to 10 mph, and Air Force veteran Chris Banks, present at the Aug. 19 kickoff "media event" at the Cam-Boh Picnic Area off Picture Rocks Road, told park staff that he thought the winds were above that.
He was ignored, but U.S. Weather Service Tucson records for that date show high wind speeds of 26 mph, with gusts of 31 mph. In fact, high wind speeds for the entire aerial spraying period were in the 13 to 20 mph range, with gusts in the 19 to 24 mph range.
Sherryl Volpone lives in Picture Rocks near Panther Peak--the first target of aerial spraying in Saguaro West. She watched the helicopter spray drift towards her home. She and two family members suddenly came down with severe headaches, causing her to miss work.
Park Superintendent Darla Sidles maintained, in a Sept. 11 letter, that those official wind speeds did not apply to the spray area and that park staff located about 200 feet from the treated area had anemometers that showed wind speeds of 1 to 6 mph. The staff and equipment were not visible from Cam-Boh or the Volpone residence and were not mentioned by park staff present there.
Stopping buffelgrass from taking over the Sonoran Desert will require leadership, diplomacy, coordination, and cooperation between, at a minimum, the federal government, Arizona, Texas, Mexico, corporations, and environmental groups. Some call for a Civilian Conservation Corps approach to get more boots on the ground quickly.
None of that will come easy, but simply spraying poison on the problem will not make it go away. Like the spread of buffelgrass itself, desperate actions could carry even more unintended, and serious, consequences.