“Along the San Pedro” might be a better title for my column this week. Our hearts and minds are moving in several directions at once: towards anger and grief that the fire took place; towards love and concern for all who are affected; towards thanks and appreciation for all the people who provided, and continue to provide, help and assistance.
The danger is not over. Salt cedar roots can smolder for days before springing back into flames. The heat of the summer continues, and all along the San Pedro and the Gila the salt cedar plants stretch on either side for mile after mile providing the fuel for future disaster.
A hundred years ago the salt cedars were not here. The rivers flowed through natural desert area, with native trees along the banks, especially the willows which provided nesting places for birds.
Then the salt cedar (also known as tamarisk) arrived. It was native to Russia, and was imported to stabilize soil and provide wind breaks. How did it get here? Maybe a farmer in New Mexico planted it, and the Gila carried seeds down the river banks. Maybe birds spread the seeds. However it happened, the salt cedar took root throughout Arizona and grew rapidly, its tenacious roots crowding out other plants. In addition, the invasive plant changes the nature of the soil around it, affecting the nutrient structure in a way that causes other plants to die. This provides more room for the salt cedar to grow and spread, and the cycle goes on.
First steps have been taken to remove at least some of the salt cedar in this area. The Winkelman Natural Resources Conservation District and the Town of Kearny have been cooperating with each other, and with the State of Arizona and U.S. Government, to begin the work. A small amount of money from the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) is being matched with lots of volunteer labor and offers of equipment from ranchers, home owners, and businesses.
It’s not just a matter of tearing up the plants. The roots go deep. The plant multiplies rapidly. Disposing of removed plants can spread the seeds. Since the plant grows mostly beside rivers, we have to take care that our work to get rid of the plant doesn’t cause other problems, such as affecting river flow and flood plains, or disturbing the environment of rare species. It would not be good to solve one problem only to create a host of others.
But the problem remains. We have a volatile fuel lining our rivers and surrounding our towns. It will take much cooperation and lots of solid effort to develop a workable approach which removes the salt cedar and moves the river banks to their natural state of a hundred years ago. And what a change that will be!