Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Arizona national parks use technology to deter thieves
TUCSON – Microchip IDs similar to those in pets have been embedded in hundreds of cacti at Saguaro National Park near Tucson in a move to guard against theft.
Officials said the microchips can be used to identify stolen cacti, but acknowledge the technology is limited. The chips can’t be used to track the stolen saguaros, a familiar silhouette in the Southwest. Instead, officials are counting on the devices to deter thieves.
Such technology systems are being used to protect national park resources from thieves, such as a photo mapping system in the nearby Petrified National Forest that tracks whether visitors are taking fossilized wood.
[2up_image_medium source1=’https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Petrified-Forest-4-800.jpg’ caption1=’Signs posted around Petrified Forest National Park warn visitors not to take any wood home with them. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)’ source2=’https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Petrified-Forest-5-800-1.jpg’ caption2=’Ranger Bill Parker said Petrified Forest National Park is not missing as much petrified wood as was previously estimated. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)’ ]
Saguaro park officials said they spent $3,000 to tag 1,000 cacti along the perimeter areas most accessible to visitors. That’s a small fraction of the 1.9 million saguaros in the park.
“It’s ironic that we set aside great places like Saguaro National Park and people think that they can just come take the iconic cactus for which the park is named,” said Kevin Dahl, a program manager for the National Park Conservation Association in Arizona.
The park does not have specific numbers on how many cacti have been stolen but official said they know it’s happening because they have found holes where cacti used to stand.
“It’s not a problem that’s happening every day but it’s an ongoing problem,” said Ray O’Neil, chief ranger at the park.
The technology, which are similar to pet microchips, do not broadcast a signal. If a cactus goes missing the only way to know if it is from the park is to scan it using a specialized reader.
“Our biggest hope is that that it’s a deterrent; that people recognize that if they steal cacti from Saguaro National Park, that there’s a chance that we’re going to be able to identify that the cactus came from the park,” O’Neil said.
The park, packed with Saguaros, drew more than 950,000 visitors in 2017, a record number.
Carnegiea gigantea in Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona during November. (Photo by WClarke/ Creative Commons)
“We took one picture with both of us because it was massive,” said Ann Clinton, who was visiting Saguaro National Park near Tucson on a quiet Tuesday in February. “Like I would never have dreamed they got that big.”
Another visitor pointed out the beauty of the Sonoran desert.
“You feel like you’re so much a part of the desert and just surrounded by these beautiful cactuses,” said another visitor, Jean Gascho.
A cactus can fetch $100 per foot, making it a lucrative catch for thieves. But transplanting cacti can be a problem, because the normally hardy plant won’t remain healthy and can die within a few years, Dahl said.
“It’s absolute robbery and its absolute criminal activity and its for profit,” Dahl said. “A mature saguaro in a landscape adds something to the value of the home or the business that’s for sale or rent.”
Thieves are a threat at national parks across the country.
At Joshua Tree National Park, local media reports said, people have stolen artifacts from old mines and
“Some parks deal with people taking rocks. Some parks deal with people taking plants and animals, places like Mount Rushmore people take the chips that were created when they created the sculptures,” said Bill Parker, chief of resource management at Petrified Forest National Park.
At one point, officials at the park in Northeastern Arizona estimated visitors were walking away with 12 tons of petrified wood every year. But a photographic mapping system revealed evidence the problem is not that bad.
The park is “in really good shape,” Parker said. “Some people do still take wood and we catch them and give them tickets. But whole areas aren’t being stripped clean as was thought in the past.”
To test the theory, the park turned to photography. They take century-old photographs and then take new photographs of that exact location, then compare the new photo to the historical photo. Those photographs show the sites are much the same over time, with some even showing more petrified wood revealed by ground erosion.
Officials plan to take more photographs for comparison this summer.
“It’s a souvenir that people want, but one thing the photography project has shown us is that most people do the right thing,” Parker said.
Signs are posted at park trails warning people not to take petrified wood. If someone is caught, the minimum fine is $325.
“It’s a selfish thing when someone does an act of vandalism or steals something from a national park,” Dahl said. “It’s selfish and it’s an act against the American public.”
This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.
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