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People Archive Photo
© Jeff Kida

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Cactus Cop
Jim McGinnis has a lot of job responsibilities, but protecting saguaros from poachers might be the most important.

By Keridwen Cornelius

Sunlight crept across the hushed, deserted wilderness near Agua Fria National Monument when seven men poured out of a pickup. They strapped a homemade "cradle" to a saguaro, shoveled around its base, wrapped a chain around the root, and ripped it from the ground.

Concealed behind a tree and filming as they extricated 16 more was Jim McGinnis, who pursued the thieves and arrested the driver. The company the men worked for was fined $58,000.

Officially, McGinnis is a special investigations supervisor for the Arizona Department of Agriculture; unofficially, he's the state's first certified "cactus cop."

McGinnis joined the ADA in 1979 as a border plant inspector, eventually going through the police academy to become a peace officer enforcing native plant law. "I'm not badge-happy, though," says McGinnis, whose relaxed demeanor and motorcycle-wheeling ways make him an unlikely Wyatt Earp of native plants. He protects everything from barrel cactuses to ocotillos to livestock, but his primary concern is saguaros.

It's not illegal to uproot saguaros, but it requires permits, fees and tags, which opportunists ignore and crooks concoct elaborate schemes to avoid. The Sonoran icons can fetch $40-$75 per foot on the black market, and often get sold to homeowners who think they're a steal. And they are.

McGinnis also cracks down on vandals who hack at saguaros with machetes, shoot them full of arrows and blast them with shotguns. "If it's not going to live, I'll fine them based on the value of the cactus — $55 per foot," McGinnis says. "If it's a 20-footer, that's a felony."

Sadly, McGinnis is fighting an uphill battle. In 2001, six full-time cactus cops patrolled the state, holding stakeouts into the night. After budget cuts, just two remain.

"I get a call almost every day," McGinnis says, "but I only get out three times a month." Dividing his time between protecting livestock, selling permits and administrative duties, he filed only 19 cactus cases in 2006. Out of how many? "More than I care to think," he sighs. "They could be stealing 100 a day and I'd never know."

McGinnis has spoken to media outlets worldwide trying to stir up concern for the native plant program, which receives money only from the sale of tags and permits. He's lobbied to put the native plant fund onto the list of programs people can donate to when they file their taxes. The move could garner $60,000 to $200,000 a year, enough to hire a few more investigators. Unfortunately, it was rejected — because it wouldn't fit on the front side of the tax form.

McGinnis remains determined. "I like the whole concept of protecting something that's been associated with Arizona since as long as I can remember," he says. "It's a noble cause."

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