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How these groups are rescuing saguaro cactuses and restoring a wildfire burn scar

·4 min read

A plan to rescue damaged saguaro cactuses and help restore a wildfire burn scar was unveiled last week by a coalition of government agencies, non-profit groups and businesses.

The coalition intends to replant cactuses, some of them salvaged from construction sites, on a wildfire burn scar in northeastern Maricopa County. They also want to rehabilitate cactuses damaged in the fire, something that has rarely been done before, according to Bec Veerman, a zone partnership liaison with the U.S. Forest Service.

Veerman said Maricopa County Parks and Recreation had attempted to rescue a few burned cactuses and had some success. The Forest Service decided to experiment themselves with cactuses that had been injured by the 2020 Bush Fire.

To rehabilitate a cactus, Veerman and her colleagues have to determine whether to cut a healthy arm off the injured cactus or the top part of the trunk that hasn't yet died. They will then plant the piece of the original cactus in a hole and cover it with soil, tamping it down to eliminate any air pockets. After that, they water it and hope roots grow.

Bec Veerman saws through the barrel of a fallen saguaro cactus on the side of Bush High Way in the Tonto National Forest in Mesa on June 2, 2022.
Bec Veerman saws through the barrel of a fallen saguaro cactus on the side of Bush High Way in the Tonto National Forest in Mesa on June 2, 2022.

“We’re just sciencing it really at the moment,” she said. “A lot of it’s an experiment.”

Natural Restorations, a non-profit organization started by wife and husband duo Nicole and Justin Corey, had begun rescuing cactuses from construction sites soon after an engineer named Jenny Vitale contacted them about saguaros destroyed during construction work.

Vitale reached out to construction companies and Boyce Thompson Arboretum to see if the group could salvage the cactuses and move them to the burn scar.

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The couple started the organization in 2017 after becoming tired of seeing trash and graffiti outdoors in the places they loved. But after Nicole’s husband went camping with a friend who had returned from serving several military tours abroad, they decided to recruit veterans to their cause.

“Their parents had always taught them to leave the areas better than they found them, so they started picking up trash that had blown into their camp from a storm the night before,” Nicole Corey said. “About 15 minutes into it, the friend said to Justin, ‘Is this what you were referring to for your organization?’"

Justin said yes. His friend wanted in. "I've stopped thinking about all the things that I'm trying to numb myself from and I'm just thinking about, 'oh there's a piece of trash, oh there's a piece of trash,'” he told Justin that day.

Justin Corey saws through the barrel of a fallen saguaro cactus on the side of Bush High Way in the Tonto National Forest in Mesa on June 2, 2022.
Justin Corey saws through the barrel of a fallen saguaro cactus on the side of Bush High Way in the Tonto National Forest in Mesa on June 2, 2022.

Other partners include the National Forest Foundation, Four Peaks Brewery and the Arizona Lottery.

The lottery carved out $45,000 from its advertising dollars to help fund the project, according to John Gilliland, a spokesperson for the agency.

“We thought this cactus nursery was great because not only does it help protect these cactuses, but it's going to help restore the fragile Sonoran Desert ecosystem and this iconic landscape of Arizona for generations,” Gilliland said. “There's a permanence here that goes far beyond today, and that's what we strive for with our Give Back sponsorships.”

John Gilliland, from the Arizona Lottery, poses for a portrait at the Goldfield Fire Center's Cactus Rehabilitation Nursery in Tonto National Forest in Mesa on June 2, 2022.
John Gilliland, from the Arizona Lottery, poses for a portrait at the Goldfield Fire Center's Cactus Rehabilitation Nursery in Tonto National Forest in Mesa on June 2, 2022.

The cactuses will be replanted in the burn scar of the Bush Fire, which swept through more than 180,000 acres in northeast Maricopa County.

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Veerman took The Republic to one section of the burn scar where they’ve started to replant cactuses.

The cactuses have taken to the burn scar unlike trees in replanting efforts elsewhere in the state because the soil didn't become hydrophobic, or glass-like, after the fire.

“These fires aren't gonna burn as hot because there's not as much fuel to burn. They'll burn through, and they burn, but they don't burn as hot," Veerman said. "So this the soil here is fine.”

The scars of the fire are evident, with few of the tall saguaros iconic to the Sonoran Desert in the area.

Veerman pointed to a burned palo verde tree, huddled over the blackened stump of a saguaro. Palo verdes are known as nurse trees, protecting the plants that live beneath them. When the fire swept through the land, that palo verde's branches arched over the saguaro, appearing to hug it, before they burned together.

Zayna Syed is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow her reporting on Twitter at @zaynasyed_ and send tips or other information about stories to zayna.syed@arizonarepublic.com.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Groups rescuing saguaro cactuses and restoring a burn scar. Here's how