Hands off the cactuses Protected symbol: The cactus, particularly the majestic saguaro, has long been a symbol of the West. So if you're in Arizona, don't even think about digging one up.

March 11, 1996|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHOENIX -- It's illegal here to shoot a cactus -- or ram one with your pickup or even dig one up without a permit.

In Arizona, they take their cactuses seriously. And the saguaro, the tall, spiny, multiarmed symbol of the West, is taken most seriously of all. Mess with one and you may encounter one of the state's squad of plant protectors -- known as the cactus cops.

Jim McGinnis doesn't understand why anyone would want to hurt a saguaro, but he has the photos to prove people do. From a file in his state Department of Agriculture office, he pulls pictures of mutilated victims -- saguaros that have been used for target practice, hacked at with machetes or knocked down by cars. Some are left lying on the dun-colored earth, looking like forsaken green corpses.

The villains? "Irresponsible citizens," says Mr. McGinnis, the Agriculture Department's native plants law manager.

Those are the citizens that he and five other Agriculture Department employees are on the lookout for.

The armed officers patrol the desert daily, watching over not just the saguaro but the prickly pear and jumping cholla. About 350 plants are on the list of state and federally protected plants, and officers who find anyone disturbing a specimen without a permit may issue a warning or press charges. Violating the law could mean fines of $500 a plant, plus six months in jail.

(Maryland has a list of protected plants, but they tend to be obscure wildflowers and shore grasses. Guns don't seem to be a worry; shore grasses apparently don't make satisfying targets.)

Fined

Last year, one of the posh resorts north of Phoenix was fined $20,000 -- though the state found no criminal intent -- for moving hundreds of desert plants without permits when it installed a water line.

A Las Vegas justice of the peace and a buddy were indicted in Phoenix last fall on federal charges of buying desert plants they knew were stolen. The indictment alleges that they paid up to $600 for each specimen.

It's the saguaros, some 50 feet high, that Americans visualize when they think of the American desert. The cactus is featured on Arizona's red-brown vehicle license plates. It decorates mugs and plates and calendars sold in gift shops. The saguaro stands majestically on the grounds of landscaped resorts -- and in the yards of homeowners who can afford a specimen.

"Everybody wants one," says Mr. McGinnis. And that is the problem.

Notoriously slow-growing (a half-inch a year), big saguaros sell for big money. So, though the target shooters and vandals are a menace, the biggest threat to the saguaro is capitalism.

"It's a status symbol to have one on your front lawn" -- preferably a towering saguaro with a couple of arms that seem to be waving across the land, Mr. McGinnis says. "The saguaro's not even near being threatened or endangered, but there's a market for the plant."

And rustlers make money by stealing cactuses from other people's land.

The saguaros' habitat is limited. They grow only in the Sonoran desert, which runs from northern Mexico over parts of Arizona, including Phoenix.

In a landscape where trees are scarce, the saguaros can reach 50 feet tall and live for 175 years. Most don't put out an arm until they're 75 years old, Mr. McGinnis says.

Some stand as tall as telephone poles along the roadside, and some are scattered across mountain slopes. But transplanting saguaros can be dicey. Too much rough handling and their flesh is gashed or their arms break. Too much water after planting and they rot and die -- though that may take five years. So the saguaros that landscapers and property owners prize must be found on the desert, dug up delicately, cradled to protect their arms and transported by truck to nurseries. They sell for an average of $35 a foot -- more if they're particularly tall or have multiple arms.

But before the plants can be moved to a nursery, the seller must get the approval of the landowner and then must apply for a state permit to dig up a particular number of saguaros. Any cactus sold to a consumer must have a state tag proving that it was moved with the government's knowledge.

Cactus thieves are "an ongoing problem," Mr. McGinnis says. "People can steal these saguaros for nothing and then turn around and sell them for $200, $300." The cactus cops find holes in the desert where large cactuses have been pulled up and carted away.

Elaborate scheme

Illegal operations can be elaborate. Officers recently videotaped a man with three trucks and a crew of six moving 6-foot saguaros from a mountainside. He'd invested $1,500 in a motorized winch to carry them down the slope. He was, however, on property he had no permit to enter.

A tip from nearby landowners summoned the officers. Mr. McGinnis shut the operation down and confiscated everything.

Poaching saguaros might be less of a problem if the cactuses could be cultivated on farms, like Christmas trees. But because they develop so slowly, it's not worth trying to raise them that way, says Electra Elliott, co-owner of Arizona Cactus Sales, in Chandler.

"The farmer himself would be long gone before the plant put out an arm."

Pub Date: 3/11/96

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