The Broader Picture: Sharp practice in the desert

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The Independent Culture
THE Suguaro cactus is an impressive plant. Huge and stately, it can live for hundreds of years, reaching heights of anything up to 50 ft, with numerous giant arms. Found only in the lowland deserts of the southwestern USA and Mexico, it is admired the world over. It is also coveted: so much so that, in Arizona, cactus-rustling is a major social problem. Forty years ago, a man called Delmer Steel, the original rustler, uprooted his first Saguaro from the desert, strapped it to the back of his pick-up truck and delivered it to his first delighted client, a neighbour who had expressed an interest in having a specimen in his garden. A craze was born, and Steel - along with numerous imitators - was in business.

It soon emerged that cactus-rustling was prohibited by Arizona's Native Plant Law (1929), but this did little to deter the rustlers. The penalties - a maximum dollars 750 fine for a first offence - were derisory, while the scope for avoiding prosecution (by doctoring permits for the legitimate removal of plants, or simply by not getting caught) was enormous. For the 'Cactus Cops', as the men from Arizona's Department of Agriculture soon became known, it was a thorny problem. Even when rustlers were prosecuted, convictions were hard to secure. 'It is very difficult to get a conviction unless we catch them in the act of digging one up, or transporting a cactus without a permit,' explains Jim McGinnis (pictured top right), the Department's Native Plant Law Manager. (The nurserymen above have a permit.) Delmer Steel, who once told a court 'It's my job to steal 'em, and your boys' job to catch me,' was acquitted on half a dozen occasions before eventually being convicted in January 1990 as a result of Operation Woodstar.

This operation marked a turning point in the rustlers' fortunes. Not only did it result in the arrest of a ring of 21 people; it also proved the worth of new legislation toughening up the Native Plant Laws. Cactus-rustlers now face up to five years' imprisonment or fines of up to dollars 150,000. The leader of the Woodstar ring, John R Yates (centre right), was jailed for four years. Given the relatively modest prices cacti command - an ordinary Saguaro without arms retails at around dollars 35 a foot, while even a rare crested Saguaro fetches only a few thousand dollars - the amended law should be an effective deterrent: profits of a few hundred dollars seem scant reward for such risks. Yet the rustling goes on. The size of the Arizona desert makes detection difficult, and cacti offer a quick, easy source of income. True, uprooting and transporting 50 ft of viciously spiked vegetation may not be everyone's idea of easy, but the Saguaro is such a status symbol (whole houses, like the one bottom right, have been designed around existing mature specimens) that a market for the rustlers' booty is assured.-

(Photograph omitted)