The Little Things That Matter: Invasive Plants and Importance of Knowing Your Home's Risk

Arizona Was On Fire in 2019

Arizona had a very cool May in 2019. Residents of the state enjoyed an extra long spring, and they loved every second of it. The overflow parking lots of the zoo were full, Desert Botanical Gardens had people observing the flowers and birds at all hours of the day, and downtown was alive with people walking the streets in what felt like the bliss of fall crispness.

Few people would have guessed that this would be followed by an explosion of fires across the desert. Except… maybe, the people that were watching the various invasive grasses and plants that were also flourishing in the wet, cool weather that led up to the pressing heat of summer.

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As of June 2019, there were five major fires raging across the state, several of them near the capital of Phoenix. These included:

  • Woodbury fire, in Tonto National Park,  which was human caused. As of July 3, 2019, it was 80% contained but by this point it had burned 123,875 acres of a well-loved part of the National Forest (https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/6382/).

  • Coldwater fire, in Coconino National Forest, was started by a lightning strike and burned through 17,000+ acres before it was contained.

  • Mountain fire, east of Cave Creek, was also human started but luckily was contained relatively fast.

  • White Wing fire, near Whittmann, was a bush fire that burned over 2,700 acres before it was contained

  • Maroon fire, northeast of Flagstaff, was started by a lightning strike and burned more than 8,600 acres

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The Predictive Warnings of Buffelgrass

Ten years ago, I joined a small, grassroots group in Phoenix called the Phoenix Weedwackers. Our job was to go out into the city's mountain parks and remove invasive plants, often times by hand. It was backbreaking work, but essential to slow the spread of a variety of plants that thrive in the Arizona desert, out-competing plants from Arizona due to a lack of competition and predators. One of our most common targets was Buffelgrass (Cenchrus ciliaris), which was introduced to the Sonoran Desert as forage for cattle. This grass is extremely hardy and found throughout the "old world" from Africa to Asia and southern Europe. The primary problem that arises with its relatively new presence in Arizona…? Fire.

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Buffelgrass is a fire loving species that thrives when it is burnt down to the soil. It is highly flammable and burns at an extremely hot temperature. When the fire clears, the buffelgrass regrows, while much of the native Arizona species, which are maladapted to fire, do not. In this way, buffelgrass has slowly but surely pushed natives species to the margins in areas where its growth has gone unchecked. Not even saguaros are safe from the fire-prone species. 

Ten years ago, we knew that this plant was a problem. There are videos on Youtube with dramatic doomsday music and scientists warning us about the potential native-plant apocalypse that buffelgrass could bring. While the many fires of 2019 aren't directly linked to this species, there is no doubt that the massive growth of many invasive species in the past decade and beyond has given fires in the region more of a dangerous foothold than ever before. What's worse, we still aren't sure what the best way is to remove and fight off buffelgrass, although there are people hard at work searching for solutions.

Other Invasive Plants in Arizona

The Northern Arizona Invasive Plant (https://www.nazinvasiveplants.org/) website is a great resource to learn more about non-native plants growing out of control in Arizona. It doesn't cover every species (you will notice that buffelgrass is missing, for example), but from their resources you can get a feel for just what sort of struggle land managers and conservation practitioners are facing as they try to get a handle on these many "pests."

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When We Are Part of the Problem

The days of widespread ranching in Arizona may or may not be over, but we might think that we know better now than to release plants from other countries into the wild to serve our own ends. For some, that might be true, but in many cases, the introduction of invasive plants is more casual than you might think.

For example, this year, the Brazilian Pepper Tree was noted as an invasive in California. At the same time, it is readily sold at nurseries, and unknowingly people have been seeding the way for this species' spread in their own backyards. This isn't an isolated incident. 

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Look at almost any vacant lot in Phoenix and you will likely see a handful of invasives without even knowing it unless you know what you are looking for. For example, the aptly named Stinknet can be found in almost any marginal space in Phoenix in 2019. This plant, which browns and dies in the summer heat, is another source of fuel for fires, but seems to go unnoticed in the city. 

So, in the problem, comes part of the solution. No matter where you live, check out the resources on invasive species in your state. When you see them in nurseries, definitely avoid buying and planting them. If you are an outgoing person, consider politely asking the nursery about what they know about the plant, and see if they are aware that it's invasive. If you own a big lot somewhere, make sure to prune out all those invasive plants that you've learned about. Consider helpful alternatives, like milkweed that serve as important habitat for monarch butterflies, or bee friendly plants.

If you have time or money resources on hand, also consider supporting organizations in your area that are trying to find effective ways to control invasive species.

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Written by Aireona Bonnie Raschke, Ph.D. (Senior Consultant)

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Speaking at the Navajo Sustainability Symposium

At the end of April we were able to present and attend a landmark event that happened in Flagstaff, Arizona. The first Navajo Sustainability Symposium brought together many great minds of the Navajo Nation, including scientists, government officials, and concerned citizens, all looking to work together for a new and more sustainable economic development plan. In support of these aspirations, we were honored to be included in among those experts invited to the event to speak, learn, and collaborate.

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A New Leaf

Just a month earlier, the Navajo Nation ended their bid for the coal-powered Navajo Generating station. While this is a positive move for Arizona as a whole, due to the environmental concerns of coal-generated power, the implications for the jobs of many Navajo people wasn't as clear.

The Navajo Sustainability Symposium, a vision of Edward K. Dee (a dear friend of ours and the Executive Director of the Office of Navajo Government Development) speaks to all the new possibilities that are on the horizon for the Navajo Nation, as well as their people's commitment to securing a bright future for the next generation and beyond.

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Finding Hope with Guest Speaker Paul Hawken

On the day that we were able to attend as speakers, the editor of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (https://www.drawdown.org/), Paul Hawken, was one of the keynote speakers, and his speech was an absolutely inspirational kick off to the Symposium.  It's easy, when working in sustainability or the environmental field, to feel completely dwarfed by the shear size and implications of climate change (or perhaps more aptly named- the climate crisis). Hawken's book is a reminder that there are 7.5 billion other people on this planet, and from that massive pool of potential, there are many different ways to fight and address this looming crisis. His book tells readers not to give up, and in many ways, his speech was a reminder to the people gathering at the symposium what the stakes were and why we were there.

While Hawken spoke to several of the most important solutions currently being implemented around the world, there were a few that stuck out to me in particular (but not numbered by importance here).

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(1) Protect and regrow forests: Natural spaces have always been so important to me personally, and using tourism as a method to incentivize their protection has been the focus of my research. For me, seeing Hawken speak to the role of protected, healthy environments in fighting climate change was a good motivation to continue what I do.

(2) Educate women and girls: To me, it makes perfect sense. When you educate all of your people, you have stronger, more adaptable communities. But when women are empowered and elevated they are able to take control of their own lives and plan for families in ways that are inarguably more responsible and healthier for the planet than otherwise.

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(3) Support female farmers: It was a surprise to hear that financing female small landholders is not only a path to sustainability but it provides more value for the dollars spent. In particular, because female farmers tend to produce more when taught the same methods of production as men.

(4) Don't waste food: Call me naïve, but I had no idea that food waste was such a major source of greenhouse gases. Hawken was quick to speak to the amount of effort that goes into supplying food around the world, and if that isn't something to honor by limiting waste, I don't know what is. For so many ethical reasons as well, it just makes sense to avoid waste when it comes to food- better distribution of food supplies to address world hunger, the environmental impact, and animal welfare.

Of course, the expected solutions were included as well- renewable energy sources, less meat consumption, etc. What was most poignant to me, however, were the myriad of ways that we are currently trying to address this problem, and the great potential for many of them to be scaled up for bigger and better results. Furthermore, it seemed to me that in trying to address climate change, we might also just make life better for people everywhere, while protecting an array of ecosystems, and all the species that make them vibrant.

Innovation and Commitment with NGOs and the Navajo Government

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When Hawken stepped down, we had the opportunity to learn more about the potential for the Navajo Nation and other indigenous communities and nations to contribute to a sustainable future in ways big and small from the Native American Venture Fund. In particular, there is considerable potential for the Navajo Nation to produce energy via renewable means, solar and wind. In the case of solar, we discussed systems by which solar could be implemented on working lands to increase biodiversity and pasture quality, while providing shade in support of traditional livelihoods such as shepherding. This idea of coupling modern, sustainable means of producing capital with traditional skills is something that I hope to see the Nation implement and perfect; the potential seems endless when there are investments and resources to make innovations possible.

As we broke for lunch (and I mentally prepared myself for my presentations), Council Delegate Jamie Henio of the 24th Navajo Nation Council presented a comprehensive sustainability bill to us, which outlined the goals of the Nation moving forward (often in the Diné language). Key to the emergence of government interest in sustainability was the role of Diné (the original name of the Navajo people) traditions, language, and culture in guiding this new movement forward, which emphasizes renewable energy, traditional lifeways, and finding development solutions that prioritize the long-term well-being of the Diné people. It was amazing to see the commitment that the Navajo Nation has for the future, and to see that they might lead the way in efforts around the world to bring responsible development to their communities.

Sustainability via Tourism from Camhi Environmental Consulting

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Finally, I had the opportunity to present at one of the break out sessions about making tourism work for community well-being, economic growth, and as a method to protect the environment. In particular, I presented my audience with a variety of tools, from free mapping apps and data sources, to tourism value chain mapping methods. I wanted to leave everyone with some new means to help plan and build the tourism industry that they envision and which their people decide that they want. And I wasn't there to tell anyone what kind of tourism I thought would work best for them. In the end, I think the best way to develop a functional, sustainable tourism industry is to provide the community with means to determine what resources they need, what the opportunities are, and how to plan for the resulting challenges. Finally, I stressed the importance of capacity building, because in the end, if tourism ends up being a trend for any destination, a community that has grown its’ skill sets and knowledge base on the back of the tourism industry will only strengthen themselves in the end. In my opinion, the more people know, the more opportunities there are for new innovations to arise.

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If there is anything that I learned from the symposium, it is that innovation and a will to move forward is what we need to attain sustainability and fight climate change.

Written by Aireona Bonnie Raschke, Ph.D. (Senior Consultant)



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