Salvaging Plants: You Can Do It

I was inspired to write this post by the article “Last-Ditch Rescues” in the March-April 2009 issue of Audubon.

It’s about people who go out in the woods, or onto a lot, and dig up plants that are about to be destroyed in the process of developing the site. In some cases, government groups arrange the salvages, and those plants are used in other government restoration projects in the area. In other cases, it’s more of a private affair.

The article mentions plant rescue efforts near Seattle and Tucson. The former are run by the King County Department of Water and Land Resources as part of its Native Plant Salvage Program. The latter are organized by the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.

Plant salvaging requires some delicacy, and not just in the way the plants are harvested. Salvagers have to create relationships with developers, who have the power to refuse access to their private property. And salvagers can’t hold up development, either. According to the article, developers are required by Arizona law to “remove and transplant cacti of a certain size and species, especially protected ones, like the iconic saguaro…” The plants left over, the ones that will be “bladed,” can be rescued by salvagers, if the developer agrees.

Plant rescues can help developers by giving them a reputation for caring about environmental issues, and they can save money by allowing governments to buy rescued plants at a discount and use them in restoration projects.

The article mentions a more hardcore form of salvage called “translocation.” That involves relocating entire plant communities (and, it is hoped, the animals that live in them, and, possibly, some of the soil) and is much more difficult. “Plant communities and ecological systems are extremely complex, nearly impossible to duplicate,” says Mary Ann Showers of the California Department of Fish and Game in the article mentioned above.

Even if plant rescues may not always work, and even though they can’t save a significant percentage of the plants lost to development each year, I think they’re worthwhile.

If you’re interested in participating in a plant salvage, I suggest you contact the open space or parks department in your state or county. If they have no such programs, you could try contacting developers yourself.

Here are a few more resources:

Native Plant Salvage Foundation, Washington state

Native Plant Salvage Alliance, Washington state. It offers “Salvage How-tos” on its website.

If you need advice on how to conduct a revegetation operation that includes salvage, Colorado State Parks offer stewardship prescriptions, including one on native plant registration, as well as revegetation guidelines. Both are available for download at the link. The Colorado Native Plant Society offers both guidelines for collection and a document spelling out the ethics of collection. All three documents can be found by searching online for “plant salvage Colorado.” I could not find the latter two documents on the plant society’s website; it’s hard to navigate.