Pima County Uses Mitigation Grant to Weed Out Buffelgrass

Pima County Uses Mitigation Grant to Weed Out Buffelgrass

Pima County received a Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant from FEMA to fund multi-year treatments of buffelgrass on 9,000 total acres at TIA and the Pima County Mission Road Complex. Buffelgrass is an invasive, non-native plant species

PHOENIX--Accommodations at the Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordination Center (or SABCC) in Tucson are modest like the sign that hangs above the front door. Inside, the reception area is crowded with stacks of boxes and loose paper--the annual Beat Back Buffelgrass Day is in two days.


SABCC Executive Director Lindy Brigham and Neal Kittleson, Invasive Species Project Manager, don't mind the tight squeeze. They are adept at making best of what they have, which at the moment includes a grant to treat 9,000 total acres of buffelgrass at the Pima County Mission Road Complex and Tucson International Airport (TIA), where—four years ago—a field maintenance worker accidently sparked a brushfire when his riding mower blade hit a rock.


It was that incident, said Kittleson, which brought the threat posed by buffelgrass to the attention of the Tucson Airport Authority, and prompted SABCC, Pima County and the Tucson Airport Authority to pursue a Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) grant. PDM grants, according to FEMA, are awarded to "reduce overall risk to people and structures, ... [and] reliance on federal funding if an actual disaster were to occur."


Buffelgrass is a non-native plant that's been used in parts of the United States since the late 1800s for cattle forage. It was brought into Southern Arizona in the 1930s and 40s for erosion control. In the past 80 years, buffelgrass has spread across the desert landscape, and is now growing in washes, alleyways and other unmanaged areas in the City of Tucson.


According to Kittleson, buffelgrass crowds out native plant species and—because it grows so prolifically—fills in the naturally-occurring spaces between plants. These empty spaces are important, acting as natural fire breaks in the case of a wildfire. But buffelgrass has transformed swaths of our fire-resistant desert landscape into fire-prone savannah.


As if that weren’t bad enough, buffelgrass has an equally unattractive reputation for being highly flammable. Under the right conditions, said Kittleson, a line of buffelgrass 100 yards long will burn in 3 minutes at temperatures hot enough to melt aluminum.


Pima County received a PDM grant for $2.5 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2011 to mitigate the threat of buffelgrass-fueled brushfires in the aforementioned areas. The Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs works with Pima County to satisfy grant and reporting requirements for FEMA.


SABCC helped write the grant proposal and now provides technical advice to the Tucson Airport Authority and Pima County on their buffelgrass treatment plans, conducts community outreach, monitors treatments and prepares grant reports.


SABCC and its partners have so far used the monies to map the buffelgrass infestation at the two project sites, fund multi-year herbicide treatments of 9,000 total acres, develop a Buffelgrass Mitigation Certification course to train contactors and the public on proper removal techniques, print outreach materials, and engage communities and homeowners’ associations located within a two-miles radius of the treatment sites.


In the first year, SABCC hosted 10 open houses and hung about 31,000 door hangers to notify residents of treatments and of buffelgrass surveys in their neighborhoods. “SABCC's goal is to educate the community on how to become self-sufficient in elminiating buffelgrass from their property and neighborhoods,” said Kittleson.


The Tucson Airport Authority and Pima County are treating the buffelgrass with an herbicide called glyphosate—the same active ingredient found in Roundup®. Kittleson said this herbicide must be applied to buffelgrass when the plant is at least 50 percent green, so treatments are usually done in late summer after a good rain.


Over the past two years, the Airport Authority and Pima County have treated 9,000 total acres twice, and—up until this past monsoon season—thought they were making good progress. However, last year’s wetter-than-average monsoon opened everyone’s eyes to the tenacity of plant. Heavy rains promoted new buffelgrass growth in areas that were treated with herbicide just a month earlier, and necessitated follow-up spraying in multiple areas. Kittleson said buffelgrass can grow to three feet tall and begin to seed in a matter of a few weeks.


Aside from herbicide, Kittleson said buffelgrass can also be pulled using gloves and a digging bar. On average, several hundred volunteers, including players on the University of Arizona Softball team, turn out to remove buffelgrass on Beat Back Buffelgrass Day.


SABCC organizes an annual Beat Back Buffelgrass Day in January to involve volunteers and civic and university organizations in buffelgrass removal. The latest Beat Back Buffelgrass Day was held on Jan. 24 at 20 locations in the Tucson and Phoenix metro areas.


SABCC is a 501(c)(3) organization. Its official mission is to “provide a regional information center that emphasizes an integrated management approach to control buffelgrass in Southern Arizona.” To learn more about the Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordination Center, visit www.buffelgrass.org