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Controversial removal of saguaro from golf course highlights cactus’ revered status

Reactions to a controversial saguaro removal caught on video on a golf course in Marana highlights the importance and value of the cactus to Arizona communities.

When a golfer saw landscapers slicing an old saguaro piece by piece at the beginning of February at the Gallery Golf Club in preparation for LIV Golf League’s Tucson event, he took a video that circulated online, causing a stir.

Saguaros are protected by law and while landowners have the right to destroy native plants on their land, they must notify the Arizona Department of Agriculture 20 to 60 days before. According to the Arizona Department of Agriculture, which is investigating the incident, the Gallery did not have a permit or notice of intent for the removal as is required.

Jeremy Duda, the general manager at the golf course, said the two saguaros that were cut down by a third-party landscaping company were done so without permission from the Gallery management.

Duda said after the tournament, which runs March 17-19, the golf club will replace the saguaros that were removed and vowed it would not happen again.

“We’ve always been very good stewards to the community and the desert,” he said.

Destruction of saguaros often elicits strong responses from communities. Russ McSpadden, the Southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit, said saguaros are greatly treasured in southern Arizona. When they are torn down, people are often outraged.

McSpadden noted the ecological importance of saguaros to all species that live near them, including humans.

“The saguaro is important to the survival of these species. Everything from bighorn sheep to native bees benefit from saguaros,” he said.

McSpadden said saguaros provide shelter to countless birds and other animals and many species nest in or on them. The Gila woodpeckers and the “imperiled” cactus ferruginous pygmy owl nest inside saguaro cavities, while raptors like great horned owls and Harris hawks nest in the crooks of saguaro arms, he noted.

He added that lesser long-nosed bats have adapted to retrieve nectar from saguaro flowers in the spring.

He also noted that saguaros are “highly valuable and highly prized” and often landowners will sell their saguaros and transplant them rather than destroy them.

Just south of Marana, in Tucson, city landscapers take special care regarding saguaros and go through a thorough inventory and analysis in compliance with city code on native plant preservation.

According to Tucson’s landscape architect project manager David Marhefka, the city tries to save all saguaros unless they cannot be moved because of being in an inaccessible location.

“If we cannot move a saguaro we mitigate and plant three additional as replacement,” Marhefka said in an email.

In 2016, the removal of a saguaro caught media attention when it was chopped down legally by the city of Tucson because it was on the verge of falling down over a street, according to an article published by KOLD News 13.

Saguaros are sacred to Arizona’s Indigenous communities

Saguaros are slow growing and can live between 150 and 175 years, and sometimes longer. They take 35 years to bear fruit, and even longer to grow arms.

When a saguaro is cut down, community members are often devastated. For the O’odham people, who have lived in the area since time immemorial, saguaros are their ancestors and are treated with respect. Cutting down such an important cactus is “disheartening” said Philip Robert, a member of the Akimel O’odham, the Gila River Community.

“The saguaros are so important to us and it’s so disheartening to see one be destroyed,” Robert said.

Saguaro fruit, or bahidaj, is the center of O’odham culture, he said. All year long, the community waits in anticipation for bahidaj harvest season, which occurs in July, around the time of summer solstice. There are also saguaro fruit harvesting songs, adding to the excitement of this annual activity. This time is also the O’odham New Year, a time of fun and games, Robert said.

Families wake up early in the morning, pray and give thanks to the saguaro fruit before harvesting. While harvesting, they leave some fruit for the animals, he said.

This tradition has been passed down for hundreds of years and is explained in a video produced by Arizona Public Media.

Robert said saguaros have sustained the O’odham for generations. The fruit is processed and turned into a range of foods like jam, syrup, and wine for the ceremony that occurs after the harvest.

Saguaros are used as tools to help gather the fruit, said Phyllis Valenzuela, a community member of the San Xavier District.

She said the removal of the saguaro was “upsetting.”

“The saguaro are sacred to us,” she said. “We consider them people, and they provide food for us.”

Robert noted that processing the sweet, bright red bahidaj takes time. Families will often freeze the fruit for use throughout the year.

“It’s done with love, care and prayers,” he said.

Coverage of southern Arizona on and in The Arizona Republic is funded by the nonprofit Report for America in association with The Republic.

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