One of the most significant threats facing our Sonoran Desert environment is the spread of invasive species.
Two particularly insidious invasive plants are the related buffelgrass and fountain grass.
These plants monopolize the limited available desert water supply and in doing so kill off other competing plants in the surrounding area, starting with smaller grasses, bushes, and cacti and eventually killing off larger trees and even saguaro by choking off access to water for other plants in the area.
Once established, these invasive plants are difficult to eliminate.
They reproduce rapidly and quickly and can thrive in severe environmental conditions, making it a challenge to remove the plants once established. In addition to destruction of native plants, buffelgrass and fountain grass present a significant fire hazard.
Prior to the spread of these plants, fire was not a significant risk factor in the Sonoran Desert, as there was limited fuel to burn. With the spread of these plants, however, fires in the desert environment have become more frequent and destructive.
Summer visitors to Flagstaff may have observed the ever-increasing closures of the I-17 freeway due to brush fires.
These invasive plants are what is burning during the fires, as the plants thrive along roads and provide ample fuel for fires. If buffelgrass and fountain grass continue to spread unimpeded in the Phoenix area, fires will become a risk for many parks and communities.
The City of Phoenix is taking steps to prevent fountain grass and buffelgrass spread in city parks, including South Mountain Park, and removing the grasses when present.
This is challenging and time consuming as eradicated areas must be monitored for a year or longer after removal because the seeds can lay dormant and reappear.
Currently, the spread of these plants is limited in most areas of South Mountain Park but is more extensive in other city parks such as North Mountain Park and the Sonoran Desert Preserve.
There are several things you can do to help prevent the further spread of buffelgrass and fountain grass:
1) Attend training on proper invasive plant removal through the city of Phoenix or the Desert Botanical Garden. The Park Steward Program is a great way to access this training and help with the removal of invasive plants. cop.samaritan.com/custom/501/opp_details/921
2) Educate your neighbors and HOA about the risk posed by fountain grass in particular. Often sold as infertile, the Desert Botanical Garden has identified that fountain grass can still pollinate and spread from related plants and should never be used as a decorative plant in the Phoenix area.
3) With a level of comfort in identifying these plants, pulling out immature plants before they are established is the most effective method of limiting the spread.
Please make sure to complete a training course or work with someone knowledgeable about these plants to ensure you are clear on identification and not removing similar-looking native plants.
By working together, we can act now to limit what will become a serious and damaging environmental issue in decades to come.
Several parks in the Tucson area, including Saguaro National Park, have reached the point of spread where fountain grass and buffelgrass have become impossible to eradicate and are eliminating native plants in wide areas of the parks.
Fires have resulted with more certain to follow in future years. By acting now, we can avoid a similar fate for South Mountain Park and our communities.
Ahwatukee resident Andy Lenartz is an avid hiker and mountain biker. ′