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Know the West

Illegal marijuana cultivation is devastating California’s public lands


Scattered throughout California’s public forests, authorities found 315,000 feet of plastic hose, 19,000 pounds of fertilizer and 180,000 pounds of trash on more than 300 illegal marijuana plantations in 2012 alone.

The tally comes from a new video by the U.S. Forest Service, describing the extensive and alarming damage caused by “trespass grows” hidden within the state’s public forested land. According to the video, the nation’s high demand for weed and paradoxical policies are exacting an “overwhelming” price on the environment, to the point where trespass grow investigations now comprise the bulk of Forest Service law enforcement work in the region, which includes California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.

But for a moment, put aside the fact that the crop in question is marijuana. For Rick Fleming, director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew and a devoted trespass grow cleanup partner in the Sierra region featured in the film, it might as well be illegal corn or strawberries.

Chemical herbicides and pesticides and large tanks of liquified natural gas (for cooking) are among the more dangerous waste collected during a trespass grow cleanup. Photo courtesy of Rick Fleming.

“They’re killing our animals, trashing our forest and destroying our water supply,” Fleming said of the illegal growers. “It’s not so much a political issue as it is just trying to preserve public lands.”

Since 2008, Fleming has been organizing volunteer crews to work with the Forest Service and local law enforcement to clean up illegal grow sites. In 2013, the Forest Service and law enforcement officials removed nearly one million marijuana plants across hundreds of sites in California. “Sometimes it’s 10,000 plants (at a site). Sometimes it’s 50 plants,” he said. “That doesn’t matter so much for us. What matters is the infrastructure that’s left,” like makeshift reservoirs filled with diverted water from streams.

But for Fleming’s volunteer cleanup crews, the most remarkable thing is always “just how much trash – tons and tons of trash.” Among the waste typically hauled out: tents, sleeping bags, stoves, propane tanks, clothing, food packaging, even discarded weapons.

Trespass growers dig makeshift reservoirs, or holding ponds, to store illegally diverted water for irrigating their marijuana plants. Photo courtesy of Rick Fleming.

The thousands of pounds of herbicides and pesticides used by trespass growers pose another threat;  most of them are applied in dangerously high doses, and some of them have even been banned in this country. California’s Eastern District U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner notes that his office is “increasingly charging marijuana growers not only with drug crimes, but with environmental crimes,” including dozens of indictments of trespass growers on public lands in 2012 and 2013.

Mourad Gabriel, wildlife pathologist and another trespass grow cleanup expert in the film, has been tracking the harmful effects of some of the toxins on Pacific fishers, small carnivorous mammals already being considered for the endangered species list now being pushed to the edge by pesticide poisoning.

And what about those hundreds of thousands of feet of hose? In a state plagued by drought, trespass growers illegally obstruct and divert water, sometimes from miles away. At about 6 gallons of water per plant per day over 150 watering days, a trespass grow site with 10,000 plants diverts 60,000 gallons of water per day, or 9 million gallons in a season.  Herbicides and pesticides added to irrigation water seep into the ground and back into the local water supply, causing everything from algal blooms to total ecosystem destruction. In the coho salmon habitat of Humboldt County’s Mattole watershed, hundreds of trespass grow sites threaten to undo millions of dollars of habitat preservation efforts.

Garbage from a trespass grow site, including large rolls of plastic irrigation pipe, is packed and ready to be hauled away. Photo courtesy of Rick Fleming.

How could this all happen? The answers, of course, reflect the fact that we aren’t dealing with illegal plantations of corn or strawberries after all – but a contentious, high-value substance, and during a historic moment when societal views are shifting in its favor but regulations lag behind. In a video report by Dan Rather released last October, U.S. Representative for California’s 2nd District Jared Huffman said that ultimately the problem stems from the conflict between state and federal law.

In February, Huffman and 17 other members of Congress, including Colorado’s Jared Polis and Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer, urged President Obama to demote marijuana on the federal Controlled Substance Act, or remove it altogether. Marijuana is listed as a Schedule I substance – the strictest classification, higher than cocaine or methamphetamine. “Classifying marijuana as Schedule I at the federal level perpetuates an unjust and irrational system,” wrote the congressmen. With marijuana now legal for recreational use in two states and for medical use in 21 states and D.C., not to mention the trespass grow dilemma, “This makes no sense.”

Illegal growers left an animal hide to dry, presumably after it was killed for disturbing the grow site. Photo courtesy of Rick Fleming.

In the video report, Huffman emphasized that as long as it’s a federal crime, there won’t be the option to create effective institutions to regulate and tax marijuana. Until it is decriminalized, so that growers can raise their crops without hiding them deep in public forests, he said, the environmental devastation will continue. Federal regulations could create environmental and public health standards for marijuana agriculture and provide transparency for consumers who want assurance that their weed is clean and “green.”

There are, of course, less environmentally harmful ways to get weed, like growing your own. But even homegrown or indoor-grown pot brings hidden environmental costs – including six times more energy consumption than the pharmaceutical industry, according to a major national study.  But perhaps this cost is preferable to the other extreme.

“It’s really different than deforesting the forest and killing the animals and contaminating our water supply,” Fleming said. “It’s supposed to be a forest. It’s supposed to be public lands.”

Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @christi_mada.