PALM DESERT — Someone is swiping the cactuses in this upscale desert city.
Over the last six months, there has been an epidemic of thefts. Officials say they have lost nearly $20,000 worth of the plants. The main target is the golden barrel, which, depending on its size, can fetch anywhere from $100 to $800 each.
The problem is so bad that surveillance cameras have gone up near large concentrations of cactuses in urban landscaping, and authorities expect to implant microchips into the barrels soon to track their whereabouts.
"Each microchip has a scannable bar code that tells who owns it," said Police Lt. Frank Taylor. "The odds are that we won't microchip every plant, but it will have a deterrent effect."
A few years ago this upscale city of golf resorts and retirees began shedding its lush grass and artificial turf for a landscape more in keeping with its austere, sun-blasted environment.
Out went the phony greenery and over-watered lawns. In came sand, along with succulents, cactuses and other hot-weather plants. Median strips around town and public spaces were soon studded with spiny, twisted flora.
"The city decided to stop apologizing for the desert and said, 'We live in the desert; it is what it is,' " said city landscape manager Spencer Knight.
But with the transformation nearly complete, the thefts began.
The city's visitor center lost 50 cactuses in one night, and criminals have hit private property as well.
"We have seized 15 to 20 barrels at a time," Taylor said. "They have a very shallow root system and can be popped out pretty easily. People have been digging them up in broad daylight."
Palm Desert isn't the only city targeted by thieves, who often resell their booty to landscapers and nurseries. They also struck last year in Yucaipa, which saw a rash of sago palm thefts. In Indio, police say they have seen cactuses stolen from building sites.
State and national parks have also been hit.
Saguaro National Park near Tucson recently had 17 large saguaros taken.
Chief Ranger Bob Love said the park also plans to microchip its cactuses.
"In some cases the thieves work for landscapers, and in other cases they are independent contractors who sell the saguaro to legitimate commercial operations," Love said. "Depending on the size and shape, or if it has arms, they sell for anywhere from $500 to $5,000 or more each."
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park east of San Diego hasn't seen an upswing in theft, but the barrel cactus remains the prime quarry for those who do poach on the sprawling 600,000-acre preserve.
"Once or twice a year we encounter people with shovels and pickup trucks trying to steal cactus," said Gail Sevrens, a park spokeswoman. "You can see the cumulative impact of 60 years of this kind of thing along some park roads where all of a sudden there are no barrel cactus."
Desert plant pilfering has a long history in California. Joshua Tree National Monument was founded in 1936 largely because Minerva Hoyt of Pasadena was so appalled at the rampant cactus and Joshua-tree theft in the area that she dedicated her life to saving desert flora.
"This park was established to preserve plants," said Cindy Von Halle, supervisory ranger at Joshua Tree, which is now a national park. "We don't have a problem with thefts anymore -- maybe because we have armed rangers patrolling everywhere."
Outside the visitor center in Palm Desert, city landscape inspector Brad Chuck looked over a collection of golden barrels that had been stolen, recovered and replanted.
"I can't believe they are still here," he said, a surveillance camera above him trained on the area. "These are probably worth $150 or $200 each. I think the economy is driving a lot of this. If it isn't nailed down, they are going to take it."
Chuck said the thefts began increasing last year. Agaves and Mexican fan palms have also been taken. He said thieves sometimes dress like city workers and steal plants in the middle of the day.
"I think there is a demand for them," he said. "We are trying to be in the forefront of water-wise planting and are cutting down on our lush vegetation. A lot of people are getting away from lawns and turf in favor of desert landscaping. A golden barrel 3 or 4 feet across is worth $4,500 or more. You pay by the inch."
In some cases, entire median strips have been picked clean.
Knight said the city wants a more natural, eco-friendly environment. It initially imported plants from the Sonoran Desert, such as saguaros, but the Coachella Valley is too dry to sustain them. Eventually the city turned to native plants and those capable of surviving baking summers -- oleander and lantana, for example.
"There has always been plant theft, but now it has escalated," Knight said. "It has increased because a landscaper has a job to do, and with the slowdown in the economy he may look for cheaper prices. I have heard that some of these [thieves] sell plants on street corners now."
Still, there are no plans to return to the water-guzzling greenery of yesteryear.
"Generations of people have gotten used to fake turf," he said. "But we think we are way ahead of the curve on this."