Getting down in the weeds
Ty Bowers/The Explorer Lauren Sims (left) and Patrick O'Kane work last Sunday morning to eradicate patches of buffelgrass near the Santa Cruz River in Marana.

The collection of thuds, whacks and sounds of soil showering the ground had a certain rhythm to it — a symphony of hard work.

Shortly after 9 a.m. on Sunday a small group had gathered on the west side of the Santa Cruz River in Marana, where Twin Peaks Road dead-ends, to tackle a “gargantuan job,” according to Patrick O’Kane.

The county resident brought his own work gloves and immediately grabbed a long pick and began chipping away at the roots of a stand of buffelgrass, an invasive weed from Africa that has become the scourge of the Sonoran Desert.

The brown patch, as thick and dense as a tangled mess of Christmas lights, didn’t stand a chance against O’Kane’s forceful jabs and whacks. Yet, later on that morning, as O’Kane surveyed the sandy stretches east and west of him, he saw clump after clump of the vile stuff.

“A few more tens of people would be helpful,” he later said in a mildly exasperated tone.

Janine Spencer, who works in Marana’s Environmental Engineering Division, pulled O’Kane away from pulling weeds for a brief huddle with the seven others who had come out to help denude portions of the riverbank of buffelgrass on Nov. 2.

Introduced in the West in the 1930s as a means of forage for cattle, buffelgrass has become problematic for native plants, especially slow-growing saguaros and ironwoods.

The grass spreads quickly and grows in dense stands that crowd out native plants and support hot fires.

“Our desert has not adapted to the fire regime,” Spencer told her crew as she showed them examples of what the weed looks like.

The town last year hired a consultant to identify and map various stands of buffelgrass, Spencer said.

When the weed is young and green, a hefty dose of Roundup can kill it. When it’s brown, after it has spread its seeds, pulling it up by the roots is the only way to eradicate it. But, even then, cleared areas must be checked frequently for re-growth over the next five years.

With the brief tutorial out of the way, the nine-member group set out to dig and pull in earnest.

In two hours, the group cleared three plots of a few hundred square feet each, filling 20 large black trash bags with the stuff.

A quick scan of the riverbank, however, revealed what the group no doubt would consider a disheartening fact — tons of buffelgrass remained.

“It’s kind of Quixotic,” Spencer said of the effort.

But, despite the seeming insurmountable nature of the task, the folks digging last Sunday wouldn’t consider it a fool’s errand.

“If we save one house, I’ll be happy,” Joan Drucker said, brushing off her hands.

“If we save one desert tortoise, I’ll be happy,” Spencer chimed in.

The threats of unmitigated buffelgrass growth are manyfold, according to most experts.

In addition to the stranglehold it can put on native plants, the grass burns hot and quick and can threaten homes and commercial properties.

“This is going to be an ongoing battle,” said Ed Bartlett, who staked out his own plot last Sunday. “You will not eradicate it; you can control it.”

Once cleared, Bartlett planned to photograph his plot and return a year later to see if the grass grew back. “There’s a lot of studies going on, but the more we know helps,” he said.

The Sonoran Desert, with its mighty saguaros and varied groundcover, “is the most beautiful desert in the world,” Bartlett boasted.

If left to propagate unchecked, buffelgrass will turn the region into an “African savannah,” he worried.

In some spots throughout the area, the prophesy has become all too real.

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