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Building a TSMC factory displaces domestic plants in Arizona. This company saves them

Maria Hollenhorst/Market Square

“We were able to make it clear to developers that saving the trees not only has an environmental benefit, but also a financial benefit,” says Rob Kater, owner of Native Resources.

This story originally aired on Marketplace on May 1.

One of the flagship projects in the U.S. government's effort to rebuild the domestic semiconductor supply chain is located 25 miles north of downtown Phoenix, in until recently undeveloped desert.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., or TSMC, first announced plans to build a chip factory north of Phoenix in May 2022 for $12 billion. In the years since the CHIPS and Science Act was passed, TSMC has increased its planned investment to more than $65 billion and three factories.

But before construction began on TSMC's 1,100 acres of desert land, the company had to deal with something else: the native plants that were there first.

“TSMC came here about three years ago and we made daily calls to Taiwan to explain our system,” said Rob Kater, owner of Native Resources International, a plant relocation, nursery and landscaping company. “It was difficult for [TSMC] to be clear about why we need to save the trees.”

The Phoenix metropolitan area lies in the Sonoran Desert, which is home to more than 2,000 native plant species, including saguaro cacti, according to the National Park Service. Saguaros can live up to 200 years and are so synonymous with this area that they are featured on Arizona license plates.

In 1981, the city of Scottsdale passed an ordinance prohibiting people from removing certain plants, including saguaros, without a permit. Phoenix and other surrounding cities followed suit, passing ordinances requiring developers to save native species and, in some cases, reintroduce them to the landscape.

Native plants in structures that hold them

Maria Hollenhorst/Market Square

The inventory on Native Resources' 8-acre site includes organ cacti, the tallest at the top, and three smaller cacti from the Senita family, which are not native to the Sonoran Desert. | Photo credit: Maria Hollenhorst

Within these local laws, Rob Kater found a niche at the intersection of conservation and development.

“We are able to monetize the entire program to save domestic materials,” he said. Native Resources helps developers inventory the plants on their land, determine which ones need to be preserved, and then rescue, store, and replant them into the landscape after construction is complete.

Kater said the company's largest customer is a large residential development in an area northwest of Phoenix called Vistancia.

“In the Vistancia area we’ll be able to get by roughly [3,000] to 4,000 trees and cacti,” he said. TSMC, a recipient of $6.6 billion in federal funds through the CHIPS Act, was a smaller project – about 1,000 trees.

“We were able to make it clear to the developers that saving the trees not only has an environmental benefit, but also a financial benefit,” Kater said. “We view every single tree as a living statue.”

Kater said you can't buy some of these trees from nurseries because they grow too slowly.

According to Kater, Native Resources has annual sales of $10 million.

At Native Resource's 8-acre property in north Phoenix, cat Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace and Heather Long of The Washington Post showed off some of his holdings.

Rows of cacti

Maria Hollenhorst/Market Square

Kater sells these young saguaro “spears” for about $35 to $40 per foot. It can take 100 years or more for saguaros to grow an arm, he said.

“This tree is called the ironwood tree, it is about 5 feet in diameter and it [costs] about $8,000,” he said.

But with Phoenix's rapid population growth, the value of the land beneath those trees is rising.

“[This is] an area that was just a cotton farm 20 years ago but is now just being fully developed,” Kater said.

Across from Native Resources, with its rows of ironwood trees and a small army of saguaro cactus spears, there is a Goodwill and animal care center. Five minutes down the road there is a large shopping center and a cinema.

Would Kater consider selling some of his land?

“It’s tempting,” he said. “We have actually lost three of our largest nurseries to development based on the figures presented to them. And that led to an incredible change in our market and our offering as these nurseries that we all depended on were handed over and sold to large-scale development.”

Phoenix has added nearly 200,000 new residents since 2020. Kater's company is enabling a small part of that change, but with increased investment in semiconductor factories, there's more to come.

“I think the idea is: When changes come, we have to understand them and prepare society for them,” he said.

In future installments of our Breaking Ground series, Marketplace will also explore the impact of this shift on workforce development, culture and the housing market.

Trees on trailer

Maria Hollenhorst/Market Square

Native Resources stores and transports trees and cacti in large wooden boxes. Above, to the right, an ironwood rests on the flatbed, along with palo verdes at the base of the hill, the state tree of Arizona.

Trees in wooden boxes

Maria Hollenhorst/Market Square

Tomcats points to some of his inventory, including the ironwood trees in front of it.

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