Pricked by Conscience, Student Takes a Stand to Save Cactus Patch

Times Staff Writer

Several weeks ago while riding his bicycle past bulldozers and dirt piles on Camino Ruiz about a mile from his Mira Mesa home, Dan Garren noticed that the sloping hillside of cacti he had admired for so long was being threatened by the encroachment of new homes.

Garren, a social work graduate student at San Diego State University, looked into the situation and found out that no one was doing anything about the plight of the cacti.

He found out that although the developer's environmental impact report listed the cacti as a biological consideration, it did not require the developer to save them.

Now, it wasn't that Garren held a lifelong passion for cacti. He didn't even know much about them, other than he thought these were attractive. So he called the Sierra Club, which referred him to Mitchel Beauchamp, a consulting botanist for Pacific Southwest Biological Services and author of a book, "The Flora of San Diego County."

The cacti (Ferrocactus viridescens) are commonly referred to as coast barrel cactus and are native to Southern California, Beauchamp said. They grow as far north as the northern bank of the San Luis Rey River, south to Ensenada and east to Santee.

Coast barrel cacti are characterized by long, pink spines and yellow fruit. Although Beauchamp said they are not rare, they could be if steps are not taken to preserve them. Whereas many used to thrive all over the county's mesas, he said there are now only about 1,000 acres of them left, mostly near Miramar Naval Air Station's runways.

When he heard of the cacti's potential fate, Garren decided to embark on a mission of advocacy, a concept he has studied in college.

"It's the value that says that those who can't provide care for themselves or protect their own rights, that it's up to others to advocate for them," Garren said. "These cacti are symbolic of that. No one was being their advocate. They exist, and they have the right to be protected."

Apparently the developer thought so, too. After Garren asked that something be done, Fieldstone Co. contracted with a landscaping firm to remove the cacti and deposit them in Garren's backyard.

Raymond Doi, president of California Designscape, worked with a crew last Thursday and Friday to collect the cacti and deliver them in truckloads to Garren's home.

"I've got the holes in my hands to prove it," Doi said.

When Fieldstone first proposed the idea to Doi: "I thought it was the craziest thing I'd ever heard. But after I got involved . . . it was a good feeling to do something good. It's not going to save the world, but. . . . We spent a lot of time out there digging them out and I don't want to see them die. It would defeat the purpose."

Garren and Doi said they were shocked to see how many cacti were salvaged. Garren said he expected he would baby-sit only about 50, not 500.

Garren's 40-by-10-foot yard is covered with cacti ranging in size from golf balls to basketballs. The cacti can remain unplanted for about two months before they start dying.

"Some of them are 50 to 100 years old," Garren said.

Although Garren has grown accustomed to the pinks and greens when he draws his curtains in the morning, he is happy knowing that soon the California Conservation Corps will arrive to replant his friends on a sloping hillside in Los Penasquitos Canyon Reserve.

Garren said he had two choices: "Ignore the situation, which would be nice right now because I've got final exams, or do something.

"Although it was frustrating, there was a payoff in that a lot of cacti were saved."

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