VOLUNTEERS REPLANT BORDER AREA

Agaves restored to stretch damaged by US fence work

2010-07-27T00:00:00Z Agaves restored to stretch damaged by US fence workTony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 27, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Volunteers planted 1,300 baby agaves near the Mexican border over the weekend where 4,000 agaves were torn out two years ago to build the border fence.

The plantings at Coronado National Memorial represent the first major effort in Arizona, and among the first in the Southwest, to start compensating for the environmental effects of the fence lining parts of the Mexican border.

Over the next three years, the $275,000 project will plant about 4,500 agaves at Coronado.

More restoration money could arrive soon. Officials of the Interior Department and the Department of Homeland Security expect to sign an agreement by the end of August to send $6.8 million in federal money to the Southwest for a half-dozen such projects in Arizona and more in other states, said Jenny Burke, a Homeland Security spokeswoman. That will be the first installment of $50 million, already appropriated but not yet released, to do more borderlands restoration work in future years.

The projects will be geared toward protecting imperiled species, said Susan Sferra, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. At Coro-nado, the endangered lesser long-nosed bat would benefit from agave plantings. At Organ Pipe National Monument, the endangered Sonoran pronghorn would gain from a restoration project that's expected to get money. From Naco to Sasabe, a third project will use remote cameras to try to photograph endangered jaguars, Sferra said.

In Arizona, the federal government has built 124 miles of fences and 183 miles of vehicle barriers along the state's 378 miles of Mexican border. Along the entire, 2,000-mile, U.S.-Mexico border, the feds have built about 646 miles of fences, walls and vehicle barriers.

Last Saturday, about 100 volunteers showed up at Coronado, about 25 miles south of Sierra Vista, to plant the 3-inch-long by 3-inch-wide Palmer's agaves. The plants, which bloom once every 15 to 20 years, replace destroyed agaves of up to 20 years old and up to 3 feet long by 3 feet wide, said Chris Roberts, a National Park Service biologist at the memorial.

The agaves are the main food source at the memorial for the lesser long-nosed bat, which lives there in large numbers, including 20,000 in an abandoned gold mine. The National Park Service has financed this project out of its own budget.

"This sort of restoration is unfortunately pretty rare - a lot more needs to be done," said Dan Millis, an activist who works for the Sierra Club's Borderlands Campaign in Tucson. "I'm happy to see this restoration moving forward, but it's a drop in the bucket, if you look at the entire impacts along the border wall."

At Organ Pipe, authorities plan to install temporary plastic or steel tanks to provide water to pronghorns. That would be to compensate for the border fence's having severed the animal's north-south migration route and other activities along the border including those of illegal immigrants, said Mark Sturm, the monument's resource-management chief. The most recent survey in 2008 found 68 pronghorns in the wild; the number is probably larger today because fawns have been born and some adults released from captivity since then, says the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Organ Pipe officials will also try to restore 84 acres affected by fence construction, by planting palo verde, creosote, ironwood and other desert vegetation. They will transplant saguaros, organ pipe cacti and other plants that were moved from the fence area to nurseries at the time the land was cleared, Sturm said.

"This is a very rural environment, and the effects of all these things are poorly understood at this time," Sturm said of the border fence and other immigration- and border security-related activities. "We're trying to help the species get through at this difficult time, during a prolonged drought. Having the water available hedges our bets to be able to allow them to survive."

Overall, it's hard to say how far the new restoration projects will go toward compensating for the effects of all the various activities along the border, he said, adding, "It's a lot more than doing nothing."

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.

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