Christian Monrad has spent the last 10 years saving desert plants that otherwise would have been destroyed with building projects around the Tucson region.

Along the way, he developed such a fascination with barrel cactus that he cultivates 40 different species in his yard.

Monrad, the co-founder and current chairperson of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society, recently received the Arizona Department of Water Resources / Tucson Botanical Gardens 2009 Community Xeriscape Leader Award.

Monrad, an electrical engineer at Monrad Engineering Inc., started saving desert plants in 1999, when he helped design an elementary school for Amphitheater School District and became concerned that budgetary considerations only allowed a small number of barrel cactus and palo verde trees to be rescued from the building site.

He approached the TCSS board and got its permission to work on a salvage program using Arizona Department of Agriculture permits that allow a landowner to give the rights to plants to a third party. That third party, in this instance the TCSS, purchases individual tags for each plant so they can be transplanted off site or transferred to others.

"I'm a Tucson native and grew up in the desert, so I have an appreciation for the unique surroundings around Tucson," Monrad said. "On that day I questioned why all those plants had to go to waste if we could find other homes for them and give them a second lease on life. It seemed like the right thing to do."

Since the cactus rescue program began, the TCSS has saved nearly 46,000 desert plants, Monrad noted.

"I never imagined the program would retain its strength so long or the plant totals would get so large," he said. "It's all due to the great partnership with the TCSS board, all of our member volunteers who show up to do rescues, and our developer partners who readily accept what we're doing as the right thing to do."

Monrad's initial cactus rescue in 1999 attracted a half dozen people, he said. These days, depending on the site location and time of year, Monrad gets between 30 and 60 volunteers at a cactus rescue.

During the early years of rescuing cactus, Monrad said barrel and hedgehog cactus "were our bread and butter," but lately he's been dealing with saguaro cactus west of town and ocotillo southeast of Tucson.

"We had three extremely successful ocotillo sales this summer," Monrad said. "The projects we were rescuing had copious quantities of ocotillo and we sold hundreds and hundreds of the plants back into the community over the summer."

Monrad pointed out the city of Tucson and Pima County have engaged the group for cactus rescues on parcels under their control, and that all the local school districts have used TCSS in one way or another.

"Also sand, gravel and mining interests have been great supporters of ours in allowing us onto their parcels to collect plants before they proceed with their activities," he added.

What's next for Monrad and his group?

"The program has gained a lot of traction and I think it will continue," Monrad said. "I don't see any reason for it to go away. We bridge the gap between environmentalists and developers — we're non-partisan — and are trying to save plants that would otherwise be destroyed."

Tucson Cactus & Succulent Society –

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