Since 2009, Wilderness Volunteers has coordinated over ten projects with Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona. Through perusing the photo galleries from our Saguaro National Park project, you’ll observe that job scope and site locations may change, but the focus for the past five years has remained the same: removing the invasive buffelgrass.

In the quest to find out more about why this work is important and needed, our Program Director (PD) reached out to one of the leaders, Lee Cooper, of the 2022 Rincon Creek Trail, Saguaro National Park. Lee has been a longtime leader for Wilderness Volunteers and also serves as the Treasurer on the Board of Directors. Even during his free time, Lee volunteers his time in cooperation with the folks at Saguaro National Park to tackle buffelgrass. Let’s learn more…

PD: Please share with our readers a little about yourself.

Lee: I will be retiring on February 14th after a 35-year career as a Certified Financial PlannerTM professional.  I have lived in Tucson, AZ since 1986.  I have been married 46 years with two children – ages 41 and 38.

PD: What are your ties to public lands (recreation, volunteering, etc.)?

Lee: In 2002 I joined my first Wilderness Volunteers project.  This motivated me, approximately a year later, to start volunteering in Saguaro National Park where currently I volunteer 1-2 days per week.  I get great enjoyment from helping to preserve the wildernesses of America. During my downtime, I enjoy hiking and traveling with Terri (spouse).  When COVID-19 is less active, I hope to do some international travel.  

PD: How did you get involved in buffelgrass removal?

Lee: My volunteering in Saguaro National Park provided me with the privilege of being able to go places in the Park which are not visited by the public.  Eventually, I began to perceive the infestations of invasive plants.  Realizing how this was going to transform our beautiful Sonoran Desert, I decided to devote my time in the Park to the management of this huge problem.

PD: Can you tell us about buffelgrass? Why is the park trying to remove it?

Lee: Buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare) and its “cousin” Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum) are grasses from Africa that not only outcompete the plants native to the Sonoran Desert but have introduced fire to an environment not adapted to fire.  Whereas fires in the Sonoran Desert used to be very localized, the large infestations of the Pennisetum grasses act as a wick and spread fire over much larger areas.  Furthermore, these invasives burn at about 1,500 degrees which means native plants like the iconic Saguaro do not survive the fires.  In contrast, these invasives thrive from fire and quickly experience new growth following a fire.

PD: Please share the process involved in buffelgrass removal from start to finish.

Lee: First, one must learn proper plant identification as the Sonoran Desert has dozens of varieties of grasses – some of which can be easily mistaken without a “keen” eye.  Buffelgrass is generally removed with a rock bar or a pick.  The tool is placed under the root ball of the plant in order to “pop up” the plant.  Once the plant is pulled up it is critical to use one’s hands to remove the rhizomes/nodules from the soil.  If this is not done, the plants will quickly grow from the nodules. 

It is also critical to rake – by hand – the thousands of seeds are around the plant.  The pulled plants are piled on the ground by tucking the seed under and the raked seeds are also put on the pile.  When a pile is completed, rocks are put over the top of the piles to prevent seeds from being dispersed by the wind.  But a key is the recording of the coordinates of the polygon of the pulled, infested area.  This must be followed up by returning to the site at the next rainy season to remove new growth as it may take several years to work through the seed bank in the soil.  If this is not done, it is pretty much a waste of time to make the effort.

PD: It seems that you believe in the mission so strongly that you volunteer your time with Saguaro National Park outside of your time with Wilderness Volunteers. How has your time working with the folks at Saguaro National Park shaped your view or impacted you?

Lee: Working in Saguaro National Park I have learned how amazingly diverse Saguaro National Park is when you go from the lower 3,000 feet elevation up to 8,500 feet in the backcountry.  The staff is a variety of characters and skillsets.  Like most federally-managed areas, Saguaro National Park has staff shortages due to poor funding.  A most important observation over my years volunteering in Saguaro National is the reality that most of our federally-managed facilities could not operate without the support of volunteers. So, become a volunteer. Find something you would like to do to give back.

PD: A lot of folks hear about invasive plant removal and zone out. How would you advocate for joining this type of work for someone who’s on the fence?

Lee: Of course, there are many types of invasive plants.  If one wants to learn about Buffelgrass, for example, simply google “Buffelgrass” and you can learn about possible volunteer groups in your area.  Or, call Saguaro National Park and ask for Perry Grissom or Drew Jackson in Resources.  They would be happy to train to be a volunteer in Saguaro National Park. I find it gratifying to know I play a small part in preserving some a pristine area of AZ.

PD: Do you have a unique experience you could share that happened during buffelgrass removal?

Lee: I am almost always off-trail when working on Buffelgrass removal.  One day, when I hiking back to my vehicle, I had a close encounter with a mountain lion (15-20 feet).  I am happy to be able to say: “What a beautiful animal!”  I guess they do not like old, tough meat!  I have seen many beautiful critters (mountain lions, bobcats, desert tortoises, hawks, many beautiful snakes, deer, fox. . . the list goes on).

PD: What’s some advice you’d share with a newbie to invasives removal, specifically buffelgrass? This can include gear or technique.

Lee: This is hard work.  Additionally, you need to be able to hike over and work on rough, rocky terrain.  Most importantly, you should be properly trained for plant identification, plant removal, plant disposal, and collecting data.  I am sure Perry and Drew would be delighted to train you or they will send the newbie out with me and my long-time partner, Alexander Schauss.

PD: Are there any parting thoughts you’d like to share about the project?

Lee: This is a wonderful way to help preserve the beautiful Sonoran Desert and learn about its tremendous biodiversity.  In fact, these grasses stretch from Texas across to the California coast and on the islands of Hawaii.  So, if you live in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, or Hawaii, you can learn some wonderful skills to address this infestation in these states and the threat of fire these grasses present.