by Bill Thornton

A recent Op Ed in the “Vail Voice” poses the question “Does Arizona’s Native Plant Law Go Too Far?”  It also begs the question “How far is too far?  The writer correctly points out that as far back as 1929 Arizona legislatures have enacted laws to protect the unique flora of the Sonoran Desert; and that our iconic saguaro studded landscapes are an economic engine for southern Arizona.

A brief summary of Arizona’s native plant law and those of other states may put the issue into perspective.  Arizona law does not prohibit or require permits for property owners to transplant protected plants on their own land.  Plants may be moved off property with owners’ permission and permits and tags issued by the Arizona Department of Agriculture.  This provides protection for property owners and recipients of protected plants.

Theft of native plants from public and private land is an ongoing problem.  Dwindling water supplies help feed a strong demand for low water use landscape plants.  Poachers can turn a quick profit with little risk.  Unsuspecting buyers of illegally collected plants may be subject to fines.  Worse yet, poachers may not know or care about proper transplanting techniques.  Buyers may be left with dead plants and empty wallets.

A tagged plant is a legal plant.  Buyers can be confident that their plants were legally harvested and that they aren’t contributing to the destruction of our natural desert heritage.

By contrast Texas law allows any plant, except federally listed endangered species, to be dug from private property with the owner’s permission.  No tags or permits are required.  Once plants are removed from the habitat it is not possible for buyers to determine if they were legally sourced. New Mexico law requires permits issued by the state department of agriculture.  Vendors must make copies of state permits available to buyers, but does not require individual plants to be tagged. Nevada has a tag and permit system similar to Arizona’s. California law prohibits the sale of salvaged native plants.  They may be used only for research.

We can be thankful that a succession of Arizona legislators recognized the value of our native plants and deemed them worthy of protection.  Our native plant law is not perfect, but it sets the ground rules for harvesting of native plants.  Tags and permits protect buyers and sellers.

Since inception the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society’s cactus rescue program has saved more than 87,000 plants from construction sites, roadways, pipeline and power line corridors.  We follow the letter and spirit of the law.  Legal liability is another critical issue.  Native plant laws notwithstanding, owners and project managers won’t allow entry to their property without proof of insurance.  Every member of the cactus rescue crew is covered by our group insurance.

Prior to any rescue, coordinators visit the site, mark project boundaries, and plants to be left in place.  Many local jurisdictions have adopted Native Plant Protection Ordinances that require developers to leave some plants in place and re-locate others on site.  The total number of plants saved on site could equal or exceed the number rescued.

Safety is our top priority.  The work can be physically demanding and dangerous.  On each rescue a safety briefing is held before the first shovel goes into the ground.  The result is a near perfect safety record over nearly 20 years.

When adequate inventory is available, rescue plants are offered for sale at prices that recover the cost of permit tags and finance our education and conservation programs.  The cactus rescue program is a win for all.  At risk plants are given a new lease on life.  Buyers contribute to conservation of our most precious resource, water.

Editor’s note: Next month we will have a follow up article on the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society, and the work they do.

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