PHOENIX - Conservationists have launched a rescue effort to save hundreds of saguaros and other cactus that stand in the path of a planned 260-mile natural gas pipeline.
Backers said the $700 million pipeline is critical to future energy needs in Arizona.
But the construction zone for the Phoenix Expansion Project cuts a path through the center of Arizona and runs through critical habitat.
About a month ago, the Bureau of Land Management began fielding calls from residents in and around Black Canyon City, where most of the construction has been done in the past couple of months.
Many complained that saguaros had been destroyed and were worried about the negative environmental impact the pipeline work was having on public lands.
BLM officials said they contacted Houston-based Transwestern Pipeline Co., and after some discussion, the company voluntarily agreed to organize and pay for a salvage effort that was expected to save and relocate as many as 100 large saguaros and other cactus.
Transwestern has contracted with Phoenix-based Native Resources International to perform the excavation, with the understanding that the BLM will work to donate the native cactus.
"The public was not pleased, so obviously the BLM was not pleased," said Pamela Mathis, public-affairs specialist for the bureau's Phoenix district.
"They don't have an obligation to do this, but it's a good thing that they are stepping up to the plate."
Many groups including the Phoenix Botanical Garden, public libraries and some cities have expressed interested in the cactus, Mathis said.
Those that can't be donated may be relocated back on BLM land along the pipeline's route, officials said.
Patty Cascio Maynard, Native Resources' environmental director, said two crews were working along the pipeline's path, digging out the root ball of the saguaros, some of which are more than 200 years old.
Workers wrap them with carpet and remove them with large-scale equipment, including front-end loaders and cradles, she said.
Bob Cothern, a Black Canyon City resident, said he called the BLM to complain about Transwestern's construction activities. He said he and many others fear not enough study or research has been done on the pipeline's potential impact on the surrounding land.
"We do feel better about (the saguaros)," he said. "We do understand that they have to move or remove some of the plant life along the way. And they are making a much greater effort, now that it's become public that they were destroying them."
Ed Wester, Transwestern's environmental field manager on the pipeline project, said that the company knows it is going to leave a scar on the desert landscape but that it is doing as much as it can to address environmental concerns.
Wester added they have conducted extensive restoration that includes saving the top 2 to 3 inches of soil while redistributing the native seed bank along the pipeline's path and reusing plant material as mulch in the right of way.
"We're doing everything we can to promote germination of the seed," Wester said.