Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988



A collage of plants native to Placitas and its surrounding communities show the diversity and beauty of the local landscape.

Mountain MahoganyA Mountain Mahogany in seed season.

Ghost plants of Placitas — part two

—Michael Crofoot 

What a wonderful world we live in where such a wide variety of tough native plants grow so very well in our fantastic deserts! This is the second part of some essays written about our beleaguered native plants, animals, and landscapes. But before we go on to the individual plants, there are a few words which are necessary for our further understanding of our native plants and their distributions around Placitas.

A remnant plant population refers to a small surviving group of plants. A relict is a remnant of a formerly widespread plant species that persists in an isolated area. And finally, a very important phrase for us here in Placitas is an extirpated plant species, which means a plant species that no longer exists in the wild in some specified area where it once lived, but still exists elsewhere in the wild. One can really get into the amazing depths and breadths of our native plants when we understand such words.

There are still a few small relicts of Winterfat in a number of places around Placitas. Winterfat is that half shrub whose leaves are quite silver-gray and whose seeds on the plant are the color of snow or small bits of cotton crowning the top of this surprising plant. Why is it called Winterfat? That is easy. Livestock can get fat over the winter grazing on this important plant. Scientists say that Winterfat once grew very broadly in the thousands of acres across the American southwest and into the north. But these once-widespread plants were terribly overgrazed during the long drives of cattle and sheep to markets in other states, maybe one hundred to two hundred years ago. It is really fun to collect the seeds of Winterfat for replanting, as they are so fluffy and soft to handle. It is said that the very best successes so far in sowing Winterfat seeds were on melting snow!

A very small plant remnant in our area is the five- to six-foot-tall Rocky Mountain Beeplant. I have found one such plant hereabouts which was flowering heavily and the flowers, in turn, were quite nearly covered by all sorts of our native plant pollinators—from little hairy flies, small bees, and maybe even wasps. These beneficial pollinating insects help keep all sorts of native plant seeds raining down upon the ground. But yes, I have seen only one in the wild hereabouts, so I have been sowing bunches of Rocky Mountain Beeplant seeds hither and yon around Placitas. I reckon that this Beeplant species was once widespread for the simple reason that so many native insects have helped the Rocky Mountain Beeplant to produce heaps and heaps of seed.

There are nine species of cactus in our area—once again heavily pollinated by many insects, and the fruits are often eaten by some of our wildlife. I have gotten pretty familiar with our native cacti as I used to have a native cactus nursery. But here is one of the great mysteries for me about the varied cacti found in our area. There used to be an astonishing cactus here called Grama grass cactus—which looks like a Grama grass plant until one sees this diminutive cactus’s spines or also if one sits down on this hidden cactus, he or she could likewise expect to become sorely astonished as well.

DeWitt Ivey’s excellent illustrated book Native Plants of New Mexico has plant distribution maps for each species, as well as the locations where he first found the plant. His entry for the location of his first Grama grass cactus sighting was in Placitas. Further, some botanists who like our native cacti say that Placitas was always a very good place to find this unusual Grama grass cactus. After days and days of searching Placitas for its native cacti, I have never seen a Grama grass cactus. Unless others are here that I simply overlooked, we can call Grama grass cactus extirpated. The distribution map of this cactus in New Mexico is really quite large. Maybe some folks could go find some of this cactus elsewhere and bring some back to be planted in Placitas once again.

Then there is the surprising relict Mahonia barberry, also called algerita, which is known as a useful medicinal plant. I have seen just three such barberry plants in Placitas—three, and no more. But in the lower foothills of the nearby Ortiz Mountains to the east of us, there are plenty of algeritas—some of them growing right through the over-shading junipers to heights of ten feet or more. Where did our native algeritas go, and why did they go away?

So there are some more neat native plant stories. Do stay tuned and please do let me tell some more cool plant tales, as in Ghost Plants of Placitas, part three…

False Cinch BugsFalse chinch bug adults on seed pod.

“False chinch bugs” in Sandoval County

The Sandoval County Cooperative Extension Service has been receiving a number of calls regarding small insects that are crawling across yards and hanging out on the walls of buildings in large numbers. These are “false chinch” bugs.

They typically feed on mustard weeds, of which we have plenty in the county. When the mustards die, they go looking for other plants. They won’t do that much damage to new host plants.

However, they send out a pheromone that attracts them all to houses or buildings. Killing chinch bugs is easy. The bugs readily drown and can be killed with a hard stream of water. Their inability to survive in water may be the reason the bugs prefer dry habitats and are seldom found where rain is frequent.

The rains a couple of weeks ago might have started their migration, plus the drying of host mustard plants. It is best to control insects in the afternoon when they are visible. Grayish to green in color and growing from one-eighth-inch to one-half-inch in size, they resemble dog ticks. The insects are harmless, and they are more of a nuisance than anything else.


Diesel Fuel

"Diesel car proponents would like to see the fuel taxation field leveled - so that gasoline and diesel (which is currently taxed higher) could compete fairly at the pump. But another hurdle still is the relative lack of filling stations across the U.S. with diesel pumps."


—From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I don’t understand why there are many European diesel cars with very high mileage ratings that are not available in the U.S. Can you enlighten?—John Healy, Fairfield, CT

Different countries do have differing standards with regard to how much pollution gasoline and diesel automobile engines are allowed to emit, but the reason you see so fewer diesel cars in the U.S. is more of a choice by automakers than the product of a decree by regulators on either side of the Atlantic.

Since the advent of the automobile age in the U.S., gasoline has been king of the road; today upwards of ninety-five percent of passenger cars and light trucks on American roads are gas-powered. And the federal government has done its part to keep it that way, taxing diesel at a rate about twenty-five percent higher than gasoline. A recent assessment by the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade group, found that federal taxes accounted for 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel but only 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline.

In Europe, where in many regions about half of the cars on the road run on diesel, these tax incentives are flip-flopped, with diesel drivers reaping the economic benefits accordingly.

But according to Jonathan Welsh, who writes the “Me and My Car” Q&A column for The Wall Street Journal, interest in diesels—which typically offer better fuel efficiency than gas-powered cars—has gained significant momentum in the U.S. in recent years given the uptick in gasoline prices. The popularity of diesels also surged, albeit briefly, in the mid-1970s after the U.S. suffered its first “oil shock” that sent gas prices through the roof. But gas prices settled down and so did American fervor for diesels at that point.

Today, though, with so much emphasis on going green, diesel cars—some of which boast similar fuel efficiency numbers as hybrids—are on the comeback trail in the U.S. Recently passed regulations require diesel fuel sold in the U.S. today to have ultra low emissions, which appeals to those concerned about their carbon footprints and other environmental impacts. Also, the increased availability of carbon-neutral biodiesel—a form of diesel fuel made from agricultural wastes that can be used in place of regular diesel fuel without any engine modifications—is convincing a whole new generation of American drivers to consider diesel-powered cars. Right now only Volkswagen, Mercedes, and Jeep sell diesel-powered cars in the U.S., but Ford, Nissan, and others plan to launch American versions of diesel models already successful in Europe within the next year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coalition for Advanced Diesel Cars, a trade group that represents several automakers as well as parts and fuel suppliers, would like to see the U.S. government increase incentives for American drivers to choose diesel-powered engines by leveling the fuel taxation field—so gasoline and diesel could be competing fairly at the pump—and by boosting tax breaks on the purchase of new, more fuel efficient diesel vehicles. One hurdle is the relative lack of filling stations across the U.S. with diesel pumps, but as such vehicles become more popular, filling stations that don’t already offer them can relatively easily add a diesel pump or two.

Send your environmental questions to: EarthTalk, PO Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881;

BLM seeks bids for new pasture facilities to care for and maintain wild horses

As part of its responsibility to manage, protect, and control wild horses and burros, the Bureau of Land Management is soliciting bids for several new long-term (pasture) facilities located in the continental United States.

One solicitation is for pasture facilities holding two hundred to a thousand wild horses; the other is for facilities holding one thousand to five thousand wild horses. Both solicitations, which are open for sixty days, are for dry mares, mares in foal, and geldings. Each pasture facility must be able to provide humane care for a one-year period, with a renewal option under BLM contract for four one-year extensions.

The BLM’s bidding requirements are posted in solicitations L09PS00366 (two hundred to a thousand horses) and L09PS00367 (one thousand to five thousand horses), the details of which are available at To obtain the solicitations: (1) click on “Search Public Opportunities;“ (2) under Search Criteria, click “Reference Number;“ (3) type in solicitation number (either L09PS00366 or L09PS00367); (4) click “Search“ and the solicitation information will appear. The solicitation form tells the inquirer what to submit and where to send it. Applicants must be registered at to be considered for a contract award. Proposals must be submitted by July 6, 2009.

The BLM manages wild horses and burros as part of its overall multiple-use land management mission. Under the authority of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the Bureau manages and protects these living symbols of the Western spirit while ensuring that population levels are in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses. To achieve this balance, the BLM must remove thousands of animals from the range each year to control the size of herds, which have virtually no predators and can double in population every four years. The current free-roaming population of BLM-managed wild horses and burros is more than thirty-six thousand, which exceeds by some 9,400 the number determined by the BLM to be the appropriate management level. Off the range, there are nearly thirty-two thousand wild horses and burros cared for in either short-term (corral) or long-term (pasture) facilities. All animals in holding are protected by the BLM under the 1971 law.

After wild horses and burros are removed from the range, the Bureau works to place younger animals into private care through adoption. Since 1971, the BLM has placed more than 220,000 horses and burros into such care through the adoption process, in which the adopter may gain the title of ownership after providing one year of humane care. Under a December 2004 amendment to the 1971 wild horse law, animals over ten years old, as well as those passed over for adoption at least three times, are eligible for sale, a transaction in which the title of ownership passes immediately from the federal government to a buyer committed to long-term care. Since that amendment took effect, the BLM has sold more than 3,300 horses and burros.

For more information about the BLM’s wild horse and burro adoption and sales programs, see the BLM’s website (

The BLM manages more land—256 million surface acres—than any other federal agency. This land, known as the National System of Public Lands, is primarily located in twelve Western states, including Alaska. The Bureau, with a budget of about $1 billion, also administers seven hundred million acres of sub-surface mineral estate throughout the nation. The BLM’s multiple-use mission is to sustain the health and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. The Bureau accomplishes this by managing such activities as outdoor recreation, livestock grazing, mineral development, and energy production, and by conserving natural, historical, and cultural resources on the public lands.

Garbage grows well on the border

—Christina Nealson, Writers on the Range

Another couple of steps, and it would have hit the jogger in the head. A thick nylon rope sailed over the wall separating Arizona from Mexico as if it had wings. A white lifeline with a knot at the end, it hung from the top and dangled to within three feet of the ground. I watched the stunned runner stop short and rein in his dog as a blue-jeaned man topped the wall, slid down the rope and gave new meaning to “hit the ground running.” He headed north across the highway towards the cover of desert scrub as another man followed, and then another — four in all.

Just as quickly, with a series of jerks, the rope disappeared back into Mexico. The witness continued his noonday jog within sight of the border crossing, where the Stars and Stripes and Mexico’s bold red and green flag waved side by side in the breezes of spring.

This recently happened in Naco, a small town split in two by the ugliest wall you could ever imagine. Twenty years ago, when I first visited Naco, I strolled over the border with hardly an official glance to buy fresh frozen pineapple bars from a friendly vendor on the street. Although it spanned two countries, Naco was one village where neighbors and families easily mixed. Now, I cross the border with passport in hand to enter a Mexican town that thrives through the business of illegal migration. Hostels called hospedajes have sprouted like weeds. Cheap daypacks decorated with the likes of Pokémon hang from street stalls next to black T-shirts, an a draw those who plan to scale the wall at nightfall.

Naco, Ariz., is also prospering. Old houses sprout roomy additions and fancy windows. Vacant lots boast new doublewides and shiny SUVs with heavily tinted windows roll through this dusty town of 900 people. Friends who run the migrant center across the border tell me the going price is $400 a pop to transport a “UDA” -- an undocumented alien — from Naco to Tucson.

I visit the ecologically rich borderlands every spring. I come to see the thousands of sandhill cranes that winter at nearby Whitewater Draw, as well as rarities like the resplendent green kingfisher in the bosque of the San Pedro River. A vital migratory corridor, the cottonwood-lined river spans the border, flowing surprisingly south to north. It’s easy to feel the changes here from one year to the next. In years past, my daydreams were rudely interrupted by the screech of peacocks running free up the road. Now, the flamboyant birds are all but silent, replaced by coyote yips and howls. They explode into chorus day and night as if advertising for their two-legged counterparts who move brown humanity across the border to the El Norte. The four-legged coyotes lope down the deserted railroad bed a few feet away in broad daylight. The most brazen ones seem to have taken over the town, probably drawn by the piles of migrant trash strewn across the land.

No one can walk the borderlands without seeing the detritus of flight. Whether in the low-lying deserts or atop the mountainous sky islands, I am likely to stumble across debris areas called “layups” that range up to 100 yards long. I’ve read of arroyos where you can walk half a mile on strewn jackets, diapers, tampons and jettisoned medicines.

The Bureau of Land Management estimates that eight pounds of trash are dropped here per day per person. Figure 870 arrests a day in the 262-mile-wide Tucson sector, and you’ve got approximately 7,000 pounds of trash every 24 hours. But only one in three persons is caught, so actually the number is closer to 21,000 pounds per day. It certainly feels like 21,000 people have crossed the landscape and left their litter behind.

There’s no hard research on the effects of border trash on wildlife. At best it’s an insult to the earth. At its most serious it affects the desert tortoises that live in desert washes as well as the four-legged animals and birds that are drawn to the potentially dangerous leftovers. In 2003, the BLM instituted the Southern Arizona Project to remedy some of the environmental damage. The BLM has given $5 million to private and government groups for projects that include trash collection. The groups pick up 230,000 pounds a year.

Activity around little Naco intensifies. Like the San Pedro River, the stream of garbage intensifies from south to north. As for the wall, there are always taller ladders, deeper tunnels and thick nylon ropes. Meanwhile, the coyotes — both kinds — run at will, ignoring the rest of us.






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