Members of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society pose for a picture earlier this month with the 100,000th plant they have rescued.

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

In 1999 the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society’s cactus rescue program was organized to salvage as many plants as possible from a new school site on Tucson’s north side.

From this modest beginning, hundreds of volunteers have rescued desert plants from more than 100 sites throughout the extended Tucson area, with a few forays into Pinal County. Cacti, agaves, ocotillos, sotols and yuccas have been salvaged from sites slated for commercial and residential construction, road building and widening, mine sites, and pipeline and powerline corridors. We save the desert one plant at a time.

More than 1,300 society members are ever watchful for signs of development that could provide new rescue opportunities. Rescue planners contact project managers to secure permission to salvage plants before construction begins.

Prior to each rescue, project coordinators visit the site to mark boundaries and determine which plants, if any, are to be left in place. A site-specific permit is then obtained from the Arizona Department of Agriculture along with enough native plant tags for the plants to be salvaged. Volunteers are notified by email of the time and location of the next rescue.

After a safety briefing, rescue crew members, equipped with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, fan out across the site in search of salvageable plants. Prior to digging, the south side of each plant is marked to ensure proper directional orientation when replanting. Saguaros are wrapped with carpet scraps to protect plants and rescuers’ hands.

After digging, plants are moved to a staging site to be tagged and loaded for transport to our holding area. Unless destined for a public park, each plant must bear the proper Arizona Native Plant tag before leaving the rescue site. We follow the letter and spirit of the Arizona Native Plant Law.

The society’s cactus rescue program is a win for all. Plants that would otherwise be destroyed are given a new lease on life. Low water use landscape plants are made available to the public at reasonable cost. Instruction sheets are provided with each sale. Survival rates are right with proper care.

The cactus rescue program could not exist without the support of the development community. Project managers are becoming aware that desert plant salvage is good business and are keeping us in the loop for rescue opportunities.

In a time of ongoing drought, the need to conserve precious water supplies becomes ever more urgent. At our society we are proud to offer legally rescued native plants as our contribution to the water conservation effort. Many reputable nurserymen also offer high-quality desert plants and good advice on selection and care. Refer to the member business directory on the society’s website at http://www.tucsoncactus.org. Also check it for news of future sales. Tucson Botanical Garden and the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum also hold spring and fall sales. Desert Survivors is an excellent source for native trees and shrubs.

We celebrated our 20th anniversary in mid October 2019 and rescued our 100,000th plant in early November.

On a personal note, cactus rescues have provided some of the most rewarding experiences of my life. As a lifelong conservationist, I’ve attended meetings, written letters, phoned and emailed elected officials with mixed results. Cactus rescues can be hard work in blistering heat and bone chilling cold. Sore muscles and jabs from spiny plants are part of the package but, at day’s end, we have the satisfaction of knowing we made a difference.

Please Note: Although the title of the column is "Saguaro too tall..." the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society can only transport saguaro's up to 6 feet in height where there is reasonable access by truck. 

William Thornton is a second-generation Arizona native, lifelong conservationist and desert plant enthusiast.