Whoa, You Plant-Poachin' Varmint! Dedicated Cactus Cop Larry Richards Protects Arizona's Prickly Prizes

updated 10/01/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/01/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In many ways Larry Richards is the very image of a classic western lawman. Broad shouldered, laconic and something of a loner, he would rather bump along the back trails of Arizona in his Bronco than tend to paperwork. But in one respect at least, the 42-year-old Richards is unique. He is the world's only "cactus cop."

And that's no joke, pardner. Arizonans take their cacti seriously, and Richards is the state's full-time Plant Law Specialist. His $30,000-plus-a-year job is to investigate crimes involving any of 220 protected plant species. Penalties on conviction: up to 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

Despite those deterrents, cactus rustling has become so prevalent that the survival of some species in the wild may be threatened. The prime target of poachers is the saguaro, the world's largest cactus species. They can live up to 200 years, and the tallest ever recorded stood a lofty 78 feet. The saguaro (pronounced sa-WAH-ro) grows in southwestern Arizona, small pockets of California and Mexico and nowhere else in the world. "There's a magic attraction to it," says Richards. "People who visit here remember Arizona because of the saguaro."

This beloved symbol of a parched land is threatened because of the trend in many dry regions toward environmentally responsible gardens—that is, gardens that require little water. The hardiness of the saguaro, which thrives in areas with as little as five inches of annual rainfall and can tolerate temperature swings of 120°F, is legendary.

Arizona has an approved commercial trade in cacti, including controlled harvesting on public lands. But legal methods don't come close to meeting demand, and that is where the cactus rustlers come in. On the black market, $1,000 saguaros are routine; a prime specimen can fetch $10,000 or more. While there is no precise data, experts estimate that cactusnapping may be a $10 million-a-year industry.

Big as they can be—and 30-footers are common in Arizona—saguaros are relatively easy to unearth. The plants have surprisingly shallow roots that can be dug up in 10 minutes. The hard part is in lowering the giants, some weighing 12 tons, without damage onto a flatbed truck. Still, a saguaro thief is at greater risk of being stabbed by the plants' sharp spines than he is of being nabbed by the law.

That's because Richards, a 16-year employee of the Arizona Commission of Agriculture and Horticulture, is the only person in the state who devotes all of his working time to tracking plant snatchers. His beat covers the entire state—113,909 square miles. Working unarmed, he can draw on state and federal law enforcement and wildlife agencies for assistance. Even so, arrests don't come easily. "If you don't catch someone in the act, you've got a struggle ahead." says Richards. "You don't find fingerprints on cactus."

The one thing Richards has going for him is that a large stolen cactus isn't easy to hide. Through patient checking and a knowledge of his adversaries gained through experience, Richards has been involved in close to 200 successful prosecutions. He is proudest of his role in the celebrated case of Old Grandad, a rare crested saguaro that had stood unmolested for perhaps two centuries in the desert near Quartzite—until 1986. For eight years prior to that, a tourist couple from Oregon, Roy and Rosslee Crockett, took pictures of each other next to the giant cactus. But on their ninth visit, the Crocketts found Old Grandad gone, which made them angry enough to call a sheriff.

Richards and his department used photos taken by the Crocketts to make up dozens of wanted posters and circulated them to border checkpoints. Investigators eventually traced Old Grandad to a Las Vegas nursery, where it was on sale for $15,000. A paper trail led back to an Arizona couple, one of whom was sentenced to jail for six months for the theft. Old Grandad was returned to a Phoenix botanical garden but died within a year. "It had been moved too many times," Richards laments.

Experts are at odds as to just how endangered Arizona's saguaros are. But Richards, a lifelong Arizonan, has seen with his own eyes how poaching, population pressures, pollution and even vandals who use the giant saguaros for target practice have dangerously thinned the growth. Married and the father of a teenage daughter, the Phoenix resident believes that a part of the heritage of the American Southwest is being stolen, and he is resolved to do what he can to stop it. "Arizona without saguaros." says Richards, "would be like another Death Valley."

—Dan Chu, John Hannah in Phoenix

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