by Bill Thornton

As conservationists, we have worked to protect our unique and biologically rich Sonoran Desert from the relentless march of sprawl development. We’ve scored some notable successes, including the adoption of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, the designation of Ironwood Forest and Sonoran Desert National Monuments, and the expansion of Saguaro National Park, but development continues.

TCSS Cactus Rescue Crew at Silverbell Mine. Rescued plants include saguaros, ocotillos, barrels, golden hedgehogs, and pincushions. Note yellow native plant permit tags.

Even worthwhile projects can require the removal of desert vegetation. Such was the case when the expansion of a solar array at the UA Science and Tech park called the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society “Cactus Rescue Crew” into action.

All rescues are done the same way. Rescue crew members are notified by email of the time and location of a rescue operation. After a safety briefing, we fan out across the site in search of transplantable cacti. Before digging, the south side of each rescue plant is marked to assure proper directional orientation in its new home. This step is critically important to prevent sunburn which can seriously disfigure or even kill a plant. As plants are dug and hauled to the staging area, an Arizona Native Plant tag is attached as required by law.

Rescued plants are offered for sale to the public when sufficient numbers of plants are available. Plants are priced to include the cost of permit tags and a small markup to fund our conservation and education programs. We have also provided hundreds of rescued plants at no charge to the Pima Prickly Park on River Road (a joint venture of TCSS and the Pima County Parks Department), Mission Garden at the foot of “A” mountain, and other county facilities including libraries and the Animal Control Center.

The TCSS cactus rescue program is a win for all. To date more than 300 volunteers have salvaged more than 78,000 desert plants from more than 100 locations, including road widenings, construction sites, pipeline and powerline corridors, and mine sites. Plants that would otherwise have gone under the bulldozer get a new lease on life. Low water use plants are made available to homeowners and landscapers at reasonable cost. Instruction sheets are provided with each plant sale and more information is available on the TCSS website at

Agaves, Yuccas, and Sotols rescued from a gas pipeline corridor.

At TCSS we do “hands on” conservation, saving our desert one plant at a time. By so doing, we compliment the efforts of Sierra Club and others who are more than capable of fighting the big battles. New development will continue whether we like it or not, and we will be there to save as much as possible.


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