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The rush by some to spray the desert with herbicide could do far more harm than good

A menace is loose upon the landscape. It is spreading like hives across the skin of the earth, slowly strangling the saguaros and choking the chollas that define our Sonoran Desert. To date, it has proven to be tenaciously resilient, spectacularly successful and utterly uncontrollable.

It is Pennisetum ciliare, more commonly known by the rather innocuous name of buffelgrass.

A mature clump of buffelgrass has a strangely eruptive look to it, as if boxing promoter Don King had dyed his notoriously erect, chaotic coif a horrific shade of blonde. A survey of the hillsides around Tucson invites paranoid fantasies that the city is surrounded by an army of Cousin Itt clones, and that it's only a matter of time before squadrons of them swarm over us, leaving a trail of shriveled saguaros in their wake.

But the true threat of P. ciliare surpasses any such fantasy. Methodical assassination of native flora is little more than a means of preparing the terrain for the final solution. As buffelgrass metastasizes on the landscape, it creates conditions sufficient to support an apocalyptic conflagration the likes of which the Sonoran Desert has never seen. Buffelgrass burns at temperatures up to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit and can raze an area the size of a football field in a matter of minutes—causing a fire fast and hot enough to turn a saguaro into a cucumber on the Barbie, and a stucco mini-mansion into a million-dollar lump of coal. And when the smoke clears, the one thing guaranteed to rise from the ashes is ... buffelgrass.

Metaphorical hyperbole aside, it is no exaggeration when scientists and land managers throw around terms like "ecosystem transformation," which translates roughly, in layman's terms, to "ruined desert." Unfortunately, buffelgrass is not the first agent of ruination visited upon our besieged desert, nor even the first grass non grata. It is merely the most destructive of an embarrassing list of exotic species imported to this continent to facilitate the bovine plague that has destroyed so much of our native habitat.

The pertinent question, then, is what is to be done? Land managers have been counterattacking for years with the brute force of manual labor. Unfortunately, yanking the stuff out of the ground has proven about as effective as trying to eradicate an ant colony with a pair of tweezers. Not surprisingly, considering our society's self-destructive love affair with nasty chemicals of all stripes, the next step was poison. But even the magic of herbicide requires arduous application. And therein lies the basic problem: It has not yet proven possible to deploy enough humans to do the hard work of hunting down and killing their latest ecological monster.

Enter the helicopters. (I can hear Mr. Burns now: "Smithers, release the choppers!") In the true spirit of technological worship, some believe that only a combination of toxic chemicals and air supremacy will win this war. The proposed aerial application of Roundup has embarrassed county officials, made environmentalists squirm and inflamed neighborhood activists who correctly sense yet another emergency situation in which desperation trumps caution, not to mention common sense.

There has been an awful lot of doubletalk served up with this proposal. In various fact sheets and public hearings, I have heard statements such as, "Roundup is a safe, widely available, over-the-counter herbicide." As if the fact that it has been approved for massive commercial distribution by a politically compromised and conflicted regulatory apparatus—liberally salted with former lobbyists, executives and employees of Monsanto (the company that manufactures Roundup)—makes it safe. In fact, it really isn't possible to know whether Roundup is safe, because it really isn't possible to know what's in it, since its composition is patent-protected.

"Animal toxicity is practically unheard of." Unless you've heard of the studies concluding that Roundup is "extremely lethal" to amphibians. "Roundup is safe, as we plan to apply it." Except that the current debate centers on a test that is supposed to determine whether this "new technology" is indeed safe. "We need to eradicate buffelgrass." Sorry, but buffelgrass will never be eradicated.

I am not a scientist, merely an observer. But in my few short decades of observation, I have often seen this sort of, "We gotta do something!" mentality lead to some very disastrous policies. If we're going to have this debate, let's have it on realistic terms.

The true question is this: Considering the obvious and serious threat posed by buffelgrass, is it worth the risks—known and unknown—to spray herbicide aerially over large swaths of desert in an effort to enhance control? Will we gain anything with such a strategy? Or will we do more harm than good?

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