Shocked and Persuaded


Separating Fact From Fiction

The True Origin of Arizona’s Wildfires

I am currently working on a book geared towards teaching Generation X about the importance of volatility, participation, frankly debating the merits of laissez-faire capitalism, etc. It is a broadly defined objective but one of the topics deals with invasive species of the floral and fauna variety relative to our myopic infatuation with illegal immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere. Ground-Zero for invasive species and illegal immigration is Arizona. I have pasted below an excerpt from my book that deals with the primary cause of wildfire intensity, frequency, and spatial scale. It is a rambling excerpt at times but please consider the underlying premiss regarding invasive species and their chronic role in ecosystem degradation and eventually human fallout.

Governor Brewer and her henchman Mr. Pierce had the right idea with respect to “illegal invasion” and the fact that “it can’t be tolerated”, however, their scopes were aimed at the wrong target. As I noted before Latin-American migration to Arizona was, is, and never will be the problem for two very important reasons: 1) Arizona is the native land of many of the people being pushed out a/o excluded and 2) the export of jobs from the state not the import of people is Arizona’s problem. Job creation not Scarlet Letter divisiveness and profiling is the only way out of this quagmire for Arizona.

It is true that “illegal invasion” is a serious problem in the southwest and for that matter the entirety of North America, but it is not of the human variety and it will not be combated with hollow proclamations or misguided marginalization of neighbors. Rather the “illegal invasion” I speak of is not as of yet even illegal, but it should not in the words of Mr. Pierce be tolerated, because while it might not affect the sovereignty of Arizona ipso facto it will affect natural resource availability and quality, wild-fire frequency, intensity, and breadth, agriculture, and the state’s $6.9 billion a year tourism industry. This equates to 3-5%[1] of GDP (~$6.9 billion per annum) and according to Arizona’s Office of Tourism this industry generates 173,000 jobs and is tops among the state’s four other major export industries (i.e., aerospace, microelectronics, agriculture and food producing, and mining? And from the You Can’t Make This Stuff Up Department the posting [535] from which I extracted this data states quite emphatically “…that the travel industry has a stabilizing and diversifying effect on Arizona’s economy, posting consistent growth year after year. On the flip side, other export industries such as microelectronics are much more volatile and factors such as emerging technologies can have a significant impact on the GDP each year…travel spending and earnings are up…over the last nine years, showing a trend of growth and vitality throughout the entire state.” And to additional weight to the dependence of Arizona on tourism, which relies heavily on recreational activities, which in turn rely heavily on the outdoors the states own figures estimate that they pull in $960 million in travel-related construction resulting in 13,400 jobs and $660 million in additional earnings. So the question now is clearly one of ecological economics. How much is Arizona willing to pay to maintain its ecosystems in the face of increasing pressure from invasive species? It is not as if the state is completely blind to the paradox of being strong on immigration while weak on invasive species, which it could be argued will have a greater influence on the state’s long-term tourist destination viability. In its most recent report the states Invasive Species Advisory Council identified thirty-nine invasive species and their present status [536]. Of these Public Enemy # 1 is saltcedar (Tamarix spp.) a species of woody shrub that invades altered drainage basins forming dense stands that eventually outcompete native riparian species such as willow (Salix spp.) and cottonwood (Populus deltoides) altering the hydrology and salinity of these ecosystems to a point that shy of extensive and intensive intervention the aforementioned species and accompanying fauna.

With respect to wild-fire intensity and frequency southern Arizona is ground zero for another aggressive and heretofore unstoppable invasive – surely in need of some good ol’ fashion Brewer-Pierce legislation – species called Buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare) a deep rooted (6-10 feet), readily dispersed via seed (e.g., wind, water, animal fur, and clothing/footwear), cosmopolitan grass that has transformed the state’s fire-resistant deserts to highly flammable and equally unpredictable grasslands. Witness the two May/June 2011 wildfires 150 miles northeast of Phoenix and in the Buffelgrass hotspots southeast of Tucson which ranked as the third- and fifth-largest in the state’s recorded history, respetively. Buffelgrass is also an invasive of ill-repute that out competes native vegetation and adversely effects native fauna abundance and fitness by reducing forage and mating success. To make things worse and hopefully raise the eyebrows of those in Arizona so consumed with immigration reform that they can’t think of anything else I ask you what is the one thing you think with respect to Arizona’s great outdoors? Well if you answered cactus I have news for you! By most empirical accounts Buffelgrass’ greatest impact has been and will continue to be on the southwest’s saguaro cactus “…the iconic plant of the Sonoran Desert Ecoregion…”, along with desert tortoise and mule deer according to the Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordination Center in Tucson. The case of Buffelgrass is what economists might call procyclical [537, 538] and what we in the biological sciences call a positive feedback loop [539]. The former is described as any aspect of policy that magnifies economic or financial volatility, whether positive or negative, while the latter simply refers to any biogeochemical process that facilitates secondary, tertiary, or quaternary processes that in turn allow the primary process of interest to continue at its current pace or even speed up. But in order to assure that I convey the sense of the problem Arizona and the entire U.S. of A. faces as it pertains to invasive species NOT invasive humans I will take a dramatic detour relying on the procyclical definition outlined by the good people at The Economist on September 18th of 2008 [540]. Recall that it was this very two week period that saw the collapse of Lehman Brothers with Wall Street types immediately turning their predatory gaze towards the giant insurer AIG as well as The Thundering Herd of Merrill Lynch [541, 542]. There could not have been a more stressful, scary, and uncertain time for the financial services industry in the US let alone the world. This is the type of scenario we are creating with the avoidance of our role in spread of and duty to stop the flow of invasive species onto this continent. Procyclicality and by association positive feedback loops in ecosystems like the ones created by Buffelgrass and Saltcedar in Arizona force systems to recognize losses and succumb to external forces all at once, impairing their buffer-capacity and triggering the binary extirpation (i.e., there one day gone the next!) of species/firesale of assets, which in turn drives the prospects of native reestablishment and future diversity down even more. Under more “normal” conditions such price and valuation declines or in the case of ecosystems buffer capacity and reestablishment decline at the hands of procyclical shocks or positive feedbacks resulting from species introduction, respectively, “…hit the books far more slowly,” allowing for equilibration and integration of the shock or introduced species in a manner that allows the system to continue its daily function. As I have described this is not what happens when invasive species are carelessly introduced and aggressively spread across unsuspecting and ill-equipped ecosystems.

[1] According to the Office of Tourism ~3% of the state’s most populous, urban county’s (Maricopa and Pima) earnings come from travel, while this number is >5% in the state’s 13 counties with smaller, more rural populations.

Category: Ecological Economics, Ecological Stoichiometry, Spatial Scale

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