Thursday, August 25, 2011

Southern Ariz. community helps populate Coronado Memorial with agave plants

Sierra Vista Herald
August 25, 2011
by Jacob Petersen

SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. — After the construction of the border wall resulted in the death of thousands of agave plants, there was concern among many at the Coronado National Memorial for the lesser long-nosed bat species, which use agave nectar as food.

It was thought replacing the lost agave plants would fix the problem for the bats, which use the park as a foraging area while traveling between South America in the winter and the Southern U.S. in the summer.

Mother Nature, however, had different plans, killing half of the 1,600 agave plants planted last year by freezing them in February. Not to be outdone by ice, flames killed half again as the Monument Fire tore through in June.

But the volunteers who helped lay the groundwork last year brought along some friends this year, as more than 120 people crowded a parking lot at the entrance of the memorial on a recent Saturday morning intent on outdoing the damage done by both man and Mother Nature.

In its second of five years, the Agave Restoration Project was in full swing as more than a half dozen park rangers, biologists and specialists led the team in planting nearly 1,100 agave plants.

"I'm very pleased," said Dean Schlicting with a huge smile. A biologist with the National Park Service, Schlicting recently inherited command of the project due to his expertise in area plants and experience with another project regarding agave plants of Fort Huachuca.

The Coronado Memorial project, he said, was designed "to mitigate the loss of agave during the construction of the border fence and the fire."

But it is not only the lesser long-nosed bats that would be affected if it weren't for the volunteers, Schlicting said.

"They are a keystone species," he said of the bats. "They pollinate the crops. It is a very important piece of the system."

Arriving between 7 and 7:30 a.m., the volunteers were given a briefing on the purpose of the project before getting a short talk by Dr. Joel Diamond, a contractor with Arizona Fish and Game, about the bats they would be helping.

Following a safety lecture and a few minutes spent organizing into teams, the volunteers set out, digging a shallow hole before planting the inch-tall plants and covering them with chicken wire to keep the animals out.

For Bob Scott and his three grandkids, Chase Archer, 7, Even Archer, 11, and Anthony Wagner, 13, the project offered a "chance to get the kids off the computer and out of the house," Scott said.

Scott, who lives near the Mesquite Tree restaurant and was evacuated during the Monument Fire, also encouraged a number of colleagues from his work to come along and was happy to do anything he could to help the recovery effort.

"They weren't too happy when they had to go to bed early," he said of his grandkids with a smile. "But I haven't heard them complain. They're doing good."

With hundreds of chicken wire domes covering a wide swath of land near the mouth of the park, the only issue volunteers really faced was the ability to transport water for the plants as fast as they were being planted.

"Water!" was the common call of the day as the sun got higher and volunteers, making quick work of the task at hand, needed but a final boost to get their plants ready to grow.

"Are we out of plants?" asked one park ranger as another pointed in multi directions and mumbled something about running low.

With only 700 plants in the ground by noon on planting day last year, many of those in charge were stunned to be nearly finished with 1,100 plants by 9:30 a.m.

When asked what he thought about the situation, Schelicting, who only moments later seemed a bit concerned at the influx of radio calls, was obviously happy.

"We are very excited about that," he said of the success.

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