Want to stop saguaro-poaching? Contact Friends of Saguaro National Park

Ideas are a dime a dozen. It's good ideas that are rare on the ground. One of the best ideas I ever heard was just described to me by Bob Love, chief ranger for Saguaro National Park: microchipping saguaros.

It's an unfortunate fact of human nature that some of us will steal anything that isn't nailed down, all for the sake of a buck. But there's something particularly odious about stealing saguaros from our national parks. One, our tax dollars support the maintenance of said parks, so crooks nabbing cactuses are stealing from all of us; and two, it's more like kidnapping than stealing.

Sure, it's a little dodgy to actually look at individual saguaros when you're heading toward Saguaro National Park West--that road's a real bastard--but it's worth it to actually get out of your car once you get there and have a good stare. Every single saguaro looks like somebody; no two are alike. They're like planted sentinels, spirits watching--for what and for whom, some shaman probably knows, but I certainly don't. Some of them, at 300 to 500 years old, could surely tell us stories that would curl our cyber-straightened hair. They bear witness. To everything.

But crooks are known neither for their spiritual sensitivity nor their smarts, and here in Tucson, saguaro pilfering is not all that difficult and is quickly becoming big business. There's a black market in stealing cactuses.

With the housing boom of the last several years, everybody wants a saguaro in their front yard, and according to Love, a couple of average-sized guys can wrangle a 6- to 7-footer into the back of a pickup without too much difficulty. At $60 a foot, a haul like this brings upwards of $1,000. Why go sneaking around in the dead of night at the risk getting your ass shot off stealing foliage from private land when you can swan onto national park lands and make off with a kilo buck? To a certain kind of thinking, it's a no-brainer, really.

Stolen saguaros are sold to non-question-asking landscaping companies and sometimes to legitimate plant nurseries, using phony or forged transport permits.

Up until now, it's all been easy. Saguaro National Park covers 91,000 acres and is home to more than 1.3 million saguaros, in addition to hundreds of other plant and animal species. People have been known to poach virtually everything, including reptiles, mammals and birds. Yet the number of rangers whose responsibilities include busting these creeps is eight: four for Saguaro East, four for Saguaro West. That's it.

Microchipping saguaros is about deterrence. You don't have to do each one, just enough to raise the probability that in any given heist, at least one would be chipped. It's a program that's worked well in other areas and could work particularly well in Tucson, where transporting saguaros requires a permit. Identifying a vehicle carrying contraband cactuses will simply be a matter of running a wand over the plants, which will elicit a beep exactly the way the microchip implanted beneath a pet's skin does. The technology is the same.

The punishment for cactus poaching--falling short, unfortunately, of drawing and quartering--is not trivial. It ranges from fines as high as $5,000 to up to a year in jail.

The program is slated to begin at the end of October 2009. That's right: I said "slated," as in planned, for a couple of reasons. One, an environmental-compliance survey has to be completed, which isn't a problem; microchipping plants and wildlife has been done successfully in many areas. Two, funding. The startup cost for this project is $5,000 to $6,000 for the first 1,000 microchips and a few wands.

I'm about to go all potty-mouthed here, so all of you who e-mail me and complain about my language, please stop reading.

What the fuck? As I sit here in my quaint little office surrounded by my three farting, microchipped dogs, five miles north of me are multitudes of $1 million to $10 million houses, the inhabitants of which probably wipe their asses with $20 bills every morning and never notice the difference. Their professional landscaping no doubt includes one or more poached saguaros.

Are our priorities messed up, or what? It is unfathomable to me that our leaders would even consider balking at the cost of such a program. Hell, without saguaros, Tucson would be something awful. It would be Las Vegas.

But balking, they are. So the funds for this and other projects to protect our parks are being raised by the Friends of Saguaro National Park, a nonprofit fundraising organization. You can contact them at 622-1080.

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