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Thorny Problem

By Janet Heimlich

A thirst for desert plants is changing the West Texas landscape.

Cacti and other desert plants of West Texas might seem like a tough lot, but their numbers are shrinking. That’s because landscapers and private collectors are buying these plants by the tens of thousands and creating a huge — and partly illegal — market.

According to a study conducted by the World Wildlife Fund and TRAFFIC North America, nearly 96,000 native succulents worth $3 million were shipped from Texas to Arizona from 1998 to mid-2001. (Arizona is one of a few states that tracks such imports.) The plants were taken from the Chihuahuan Desert, home to almost a quarter of the 1,500 cactus species known to science.

Much of the trade is legal. Many private landowners — who traditionally dislike cacti because they believe they hurt livestock and compete with native grasses — are only too happy to sell the plants. Ocotillo shrubs, for example, can retail for $150 to $5,000, depending on size.

The new market has spurred theft. Poachers steal from unwitting landowners, sometimes hiring migrant workers to scoop up plants. Some dealers smuggle succulents from Mexico into Texas — forbidden under U.S. and Mexican law — and then claim they were grown or harvested in the United States. (Two Americans were convicted in 2000 of smuggling more than 20,000 Mexican ocotillo plants into Texas, a haul worth about $530,000.) Much of the loot is sold to unsuspecting nurseries throughout the Southwest.

Some tourists see nothing wrong with yanking out a cactus in state and national parks, says Danny Contreras, a park ranger for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Contreras has seen the impact of cactus theft in Franklin Mountains State Park, where he works. The 24,000-acre park, which juts into the west side of El Paso, is being robbed of cacti. Many people do not understand how ecologically valuable and sensitive the plants are, he says. Cacti preserve the topsoil, and their blooms provide food for insects and small mammals.

“One cactus here, one cactus there makes a difference very quickly,” he says. “This area is one of the most beautiful parks we have, and it won’t take much before it’s stripped of cacti.”

State Senator Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, who regularly hikes the park, grew so alarmed by the theft of cacti that this spring he introduced a bill to regulate the sale of cacti in Texas. If passed, SB 970 would make it illegal to sell native succulents that are not marked as inspected by the Texas Department of Agriculture. To prove that cacti are legally grown, sellers would be required to provide documentation showing the cacti were raised on private property and taken with the landowner’s permission. Violators would have to pay a fine of up to $1,000 and/or serve a prison term of up to 180 days.

Environmentalists applaud the bill but warn that even more protection is needed. Contreras would like the state to track cactus populations just as it does game. Christopher Robbins, an environmental consultant in Portland, Oregon, who edited the cactus study, wants the state to fund nurseries in rural communities of West Texas where growers raise cactus from seeds and cuttings obtained legally from the wild.

“These plants have been considered pests,” he says. “It’s going to take some outreach to convince their adversaries that these plants are worth keeping around for their commercial use and role in the desert ecosystem.”

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