Volunteers Protect The Places We Love

Volunteers all around the Tucson Basin regularly pull buffelgrass, a sometimes strenuous but incredibly rewarding activity. As a result of their efforts, many thriving acres of wild, native desert surround Tucson. Without the consistent work of these dedicated volunteers, buffelgrass, an invasive grass that harms the native flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, would spread unchecked through the wild saguaro-palo verde forests we love.

Buffelgrass pulls are organized all over the area and anyone can join and spend a couple hours preserving the desert and protecting saguaros, palo verde trees, desert tortoises, and countless other species. Organized pulls are listed on buffelgrass.org where you can get more details and sign up. Beginners and newcomers are always welcome and encouraged to join a pull!

Volunteers are a diverse bunch, but they all share in common an abiding love of this unique and spectacularly beautiful region. We share the experiences of several wonderful volunteers from different established volunteer groups below, and provide contact information for interested folks to get involved.

Sonoran Desert Weedwackers  

Volunteer highlight:  Marcie Shatz 

Marcie Shatz

The Sonoran Desert Weedwackers were organized in September 2000 by a group of dedicated volunteers who recognized the substantial threat of exotic weeds to the Sonoran Desert. As one of the longest running volunteer organizations dedicated to weed removal in Tucson, the Sonoran Desert Weedwackers have cleared thousands of acres of buffelgrass in Tucson Mountain Park. Their continued success is evidenced by the relatively buffelgrass-free slopes and washes within the Tucson Mountains.  

For fifteen years, Marcie Shatz has been “weedwacking” in the Tucson area with this group. Removing buffelgrass has nurtured her magnetic connection to the Tucson Mountains. She describes how pulling buffelgrass is a more intimate experience with the desert than hiking. When you have your hands in the dirt, treasures of the desert emerge, like whole micro-ecosystems beneath the shade of a palo verde tree. 

However, Marcie was initially skeptical. After years of driving her high school son to buffelgrass pulls, she didn’t join in until he requested she carry on his work. Now, she says that more people would be involved if they knew how fun it is. She describes the joy of contributing to a meaningful environmental cause and sharing that mission with a wonderful group of people. Any naysayers who think buffelgrass pulls don’t make a difference haven’t seen a hillside of native desert emerge after buffelgrass was removed!

In doing this work, Marcie has seen a long list of shy desert creatures and experienced the elusive magic of the desert. She describes once suddenly being surrounded a swarm of dragonflies while the group rested on a hilltop.  

The Weedwackers are supported by Pima County, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and the Arizona Native Plant Society, all of whom have provided ample resources throughout the years.  

Meeting Time:  Every 2nd and 4th Wednesday; Every 3rd Saturday; times variable depending on the season.

Location of pulls: Various locations within Tucson Mountain Park.  

The Wednesday Weedwackers tackle harder to reach areas by hiking farther, climbing higher, and working longer than the Saturday groups. First time volunteers are encouraged to attend a Saturday event to get a feel for the work before coming to the harder Wednesday events.  

Contact:  Ellie Schertz (Invasive Species Program Coordinator, Pima County Natural Resources Parks & Recreation) at Ellie.Schertz@pima.gov  

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: “Desert Museum Buffelgrass Busters” 

Volunteer highlight: Bart Berlin 

Bart Berlin

The Desert Museum Buffelgrass Busters focus work in the Tucson Mountains near the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. After moving to Oro Valley several years ago, Bart Berlin’s interest was piqued by an article about buffelgrass. He was initially hesitant to join a buffelgrass pull, but after learning that many retirees and older people volunteered he joined a pull run by the Desert Museum. He loved it immediately.

Still an avid hiker, Bart can’t go hiking without a tool with him. He is always pulling buffelgrass, in the Catalinas, the Tortolitas, Gates Pass, even when alone on a trail. Bart volunteers with a wide variety of groups, focused on both the environment and people, believing that people have an obligation to live sustainably with nature. “Some people say that the buffelgrass problem is too big, so why bother?” he says. “But with every buffelgrass pulled there is one less out there; the desert is better off by one less buffelgrass.”

Bart encourages anyone interested to volunteer. He says if anyone is intimidated by the physical effort, there are lots of people out there who are older and willing to help accommodate any limitations or pace needs. There is also lots of work in more comfortable places, like on trails.

He is starting to organize pulls in the Oro Valley area. His nascent group, The Upper Pima County Buffelgrass Police, are inspired by his hero Black Bart the po8 (poet). Black Bart robbed stagecoaches in the 1880s, but is famous for his unique tact. He often left poems before disappearing into the desert. 

Meeting Time: The Desert Museum Buffelgrass Busters meet Friday mornings from October through April or May. Meeting times vary from 7 – 8 a.m., depending upon the season. Pulls generally last four hours.

Location of pulls: Mostly focused in the Tucson Mountains near the Desert Museum. We generally do not post our pulls on buffelgrass.org, as we tend to plan exact meeting locations one week at a time.

Contact: Sonya Norman snorman@desertmuseum.org

Poems left by Black Bart the Po8:

Catalina State Park: Buffel Slayers 

Volunteer highlight: Marnie Goodbody and Thomas Stellini

Marnie Goodbody

The Buffel Slayers work to rid Catalina State Park of buffelgrass. They go out once per month September through May, taking a break over the summer. Marnie Goodbody has been digging buffelgrass with the Buffel Slayers for 3 years. She first heard of the buffelgrass issue in Australia while living there. When she moved to Tucson and learned that we had the same issue, she was eager to participate.

Similarly, Thomas Stellini lived in Michigan where he volunteered to remove invasive species. When he moved to Tucson he wanted to find a similar volunteer effort to help make a positive impact to our natural environment. Both Marnie and Thomas expressed the sense of gratification they feel in removing buffelgrass. While hiking the park trails they see first-hand the beautiful native plants that will come back and thrive once buffelgrass is removed. “Every minute is interesting when you’re out hiking in different weather [conditions] and seeing the changes in the desert,” Marnie said. “It’s wonderful to see wildflowers blooming.” 

Thomas Stellini

Thomas encourages all who are interested to join a buffelgrass dig. Tucson will not be the same without saguaros and other native plants that are threatened by buffelgrass. Although you may be sore after digging it will all be worth it. Plus, you can get free stuff like a baby saguaro, t-shirt, or stickers!

Meeting Time: Events run from 8 a.m. – noon, though it’s not necessary to work the entire time.

Location: Catalina State Park

Contact: Patty Estes at estes@email.arizona.edu

Saguaro National Park 

Saguaro National Park began hosting regular group buffelgrass pulls (now called “buffelgrass parties”) in October 2007. Park staff hike new and returning volunteers to patches of buffelgrass and provide training and supervision in safely digging up buffelgrass, fountaingrass, and other invasive grasses. Over the years, they have eliminated patches closest to the roads, so now volunteers usually hike 30-45 minutes to get to the patches. At least some of the hiking is off-trail, and terrain can be steep and rocky. The park provides tools and gloves. 

Saguaro National Park by Flickr user Jpellgen. Image Credit

Become a “Saguaro Steward” with a more significant commitment.

With experience and training, people can sign up to become Weed Free Trail volunteers. These volunteers hike trails within the park and remove our priority invasive plants, which include invasive grasses as well as some winter annual herbaceous plants. Weed Free Trail volunteers work on their own schedule and as often as they want, and they can coordinate with other volunteers about which areas have been recently covered or need to be covered. 

A brand new volunteer program was officially kicked off in January 2022. Adopt-an-Area volunteers have similar training as Weed Free Trail volunteers, and also operate independently. Volunteers work with park staff to select areas to adopt and then work on their own schedule as often as they wish. 

Both Weed Free Trail volunteers and Adopt-an-Area volunteers can recruit friends and family to help them, and the volunteer supervises them to ensure they are killing invasive plants and not native plants. 

Meeting time: Join for multiple buffelgrass parties each month from October to March, and sometimes in April. Pulls usually last four hours.

Contact: sagu_invasive@NPS.gov or perry_grissom@nps.gov 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Alan Conrad says:

    Thanks so much for this. As someone who has been walking about in wild places all his life, and made two trips in 2010-2011 to do that in southern Arizona, I know exactly what you’re referring to when you talk of the “elusive magic of the desert”, though I can’t explain it to anyone.

    Though I spent most of my time in Saguaro National Park and South Mountain Park in Phoenix [my favorite city park of all – 17,000 acres!], I did spend a day in Catalina, and another in Chiricahua.

    I’ve been reading with dismay for some time about the buffalo grass problem. Was it perceived to be a problem in 2010? Is it also in those other places now? Are they getting help like yours?

    If I manage to get back there [76 yrs now, but still active] I hope to pull some grass myself.


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