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  • Writer's pictureJill Kismet

A Keystone Of The Sonoran Desert: Why Old Saguaros Matter

When I stand beside a truly massive saguaro, I am in constant awe of their magnificence – as I’m sure you are. I reflect on its remarkable life over countless decades of extreme heat and drought to become a several-ton giant of the Sonoran Desert. These giants are referred to as heritage or legacy saguaros, and are typically 100-200 years old with numerous arms, which serve to increase their flowering capacity and fruit production. They’re an iconic symbol of the Southwest and a significant part of our life here in Marana. For the Tohono O’odham Nation, their cosmology tells us a saguaro is actually a person – a living being just like you and me.

The saguaro (pronounced “suh-war-oh”) is more than just the largest cactus growing in the United States, it is a keystone species of the Sonoran Desert. Keystone species are defined as those that are critical to the survival of the ecosystem in which they live. When keystones species are removed, the whole community of plants and animals that rely on them are irreversibly impacted – resulting in the eventual collapse of that system. Scientists have identified that saguaros, as a keystone species, are directly responsible for providing food and habitat for more than 100 varieties of birds, bats, mammals, and other creatures. And the importance of the saguaro, what scientists call its ecological value, actually increases with age (largely due to its ever-increasing arm production and height)!

Yet in Marana, these ecologically vital elders are frequently bulldozed without a second thought. Ironically, Marana’s general plan states [the town] “promotes the protection, conservation, and long-term sustainability of its distinct natural environment” (Policy RS-11 in the general plan), yet they rampantly destroy hundreds of ecologically critical heritage saguaros year after year. So, what’s happening here?! Well, it comes down to money and poor scientific application – but mostly money. Identification and relocation of Arizona’s Protected Native Plants is expensive for developers whose sole motive is greater and greater profit, so they push back – and in Marana, they usually get what they want.

Maximizing developer profit and lackadaisical procedures that rubber stamp removal of old saguaros, can no longer be used as excuses for continuing to thoughtlessly destroy the Sonoran Desert’s keystone species. We simply need a new vision of development in Marana that values RS-11 at the highest levels of local government. That foundation allows the application of a win-win approach for both developer and the saguaro that Marana is charged with protecting. And that solution already exists! In fact, it’s right next door in…. WAIT FOR IT… Oro Valley (OV).

In fact, OV’s approach to protecting heritage saguaros is award-winning. At the 2022 AZ Chapter’s American Planning Association, Bayer Vella (OV Planning Manager) and his staff took home an honorable mention for new regulations focused on defining and retaining in-place “significant” saguaros. That six-page document, recently updated in April 2022, takes what was a subjective, loosely-imposed code on saguaros and replaces it with an objective, strictly-enforced management practice based on decades of quality science and research on the saguaro. And more importantly, developers now have a consistent and reliable procedure they can rely on for saguaro preservation. What makes Mr. Vella’s approach innovative is rigorous scientific application. For example, it is certain that saguaro health has little to do with an “unsightly” appearance – and so appearance is NEVER strictly a reason for destroying saguaros in OV. Also, years of data that tracked transplanted saguaros shows that legacy saguaros cannot be successfully relocated; they typically die within three years, making it imperative to leave them in place.

If you’d like to see Oro Valley’s new saguaro protection measures in action, simply head over to Saguaros Viejas, a new community of homes on the corner of Naranja and La Cholla, that began working with OV’s planning department around 2018. This 38-acre site (part of a larger parcel) has hundreds of saguaros, including seven identified as “significant”. You can still see a few of them with the OV-mandated 10-foot radius chain-link fencing to protect them until development is completed. All I could do when I saw this was smile, and I hope it makes you smile too! But what makes the developer smile is that dozens of new homes were still creatively packed into this relatively small parcel ALL WHILE RETAINING numerous blocks of wildlife corridors and historical washes. It’s a complex plan that’s a win-win by the measures of scientific application and big developer profit.

I enjoyed a far-ranging discussion with Mr. Vella, and we agreed that it’s truly up to each local town or municipality to value their saguaros and get creative with these win-win solutions for both the developer and the environment. So, let’s tell Marana officials that “Old Saguaros Matter!” Luckily, your first opportunity to do that is Wednesday, Aug. 31, at 6PM at the Marana Municipal Complex where a 51-acre parcel is next on the chopping block to be bladed (corner of Thornydale and Tangerine). I recently took a quick bike ride around the perimeter and counted over 250 saguaros (and that’s just what I could see from the outside looking in), clearly indicating this area is a significant bajada community of the Tortolita Mountain Foothills.

Saying no to rezone until environmental protections are put in place for saguaros is what we can do to let the town know we are sick and tired of the profit-first motivation and bad scientific application that’s destroying Marana’s unique desert ecosystem.


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