Pubdate: Sun, 02 Sep 2012
Source: Times-Standard (Eureka, CA)
Copyright: 2012 Times-Standard
Author: Thadeus Greenson


Editor's note: This is the second story in a three part series 
looking at marijuana issues on the North Coast.

Federal and local law enforcement officials are citing increased 
environmental degradation as a primary reason for an imminent 
crackdown on large-scale marijuana grow operations.

But when it comes to the full scope of the damage, it's difficult to 
get more than anecdotal examples of diverted streams, unpermitted 
soil grading, the clear cutting of trees, heavy fertilizer and 
pesticide usage and stories about tons -- literally tons -- of 
garbage left in some of the state's most pristine public lands.

The only peer reviewed scientific study that begins to quantify the 
impacts of large-scale, illicit pot grows was released earlier this 
summer by UC Davis researchers. It concludes that the heavy use of 
high-powered rodenticides at outdoor marijuana grows is likely a 
leading cause of death for the Pacific fisher, a reclusive 
weasel-like creature that is currently a candidate for federal 
protection under the endangered species act.

Lauding the study as a "game changer," many officials said it 
underscores the need to make sure illegal grow sites are properly 
cleaned up and to find funding for studies on other potential impacts 
associated with large-scale marijuana cultivation.

"The truth of the matter is you don't have to have the flu to know 
it's bad -- they can do 400 studies, and I know it's bad," said North 
Coast Congressman Mike Thompson in a recent phone interview with the 
Times-Standard. "But, anything at all that can be done to quantify 
this -- to show exactly how bad it is -- I think we need to do."

Several officials -- including Thompson -- said they believe 
increased scientific data quantifying the environmental damage caused 
by large-scale illegal marijuana grows will loosen federal purse 
strings, leading to a much needed increase in federal funding to help 
clean up some of the damage.

When police raid a grow site, it's often the marijuana plants that 
garner the attention -- with headlines boldly stating how many 
thousands of plants were pulled from a remote section of a national 
or state park. But, it's the other items found at the grow sites that 
may actually pose a larger danger to the public.

Humboldt County Sheriff's Sgt. Wayne Hanson said it's not uncommon 
for investigators to find complex mazes of plastic irrigation lines 
and large containers of high-powered pesticides, fertilizers and 
rodenticides. Then, he said, there's the trash -- often mounds of 
soda cans and other debris -- and literally piles of human feces in 
holes dug into the ground and used as makeshift outhouses.

Traditionally, these things get left behind by law enforcement, he said.

"We don't have the time nor the resources to switch modes after we 
eradicate the marijuana into reforesting and cleaning up," he said. 
"We remove the marijuana and look for suspects and clues as to who's 
doing it, but we do not clean up the sites."

Instead, Hanson said, law enforcement will call state parks, fish and 
game or the bureau of land management to notify them of the 
eradication operation so that, if they choose, they can follow up 
with a cleanup effort.

The problem, most concede, is that rarely happens. The other agencies 
are underfunded and overworked, and simply don't have the resources 
to conduct a large-scale cleanup effort of the grow sites, which are 
often only accessible by helicopter or by hiking through miles of dense forest.

In some cases, this leaves the sites -- still complete with the 
growing infrastructure -- as prime cultivation locations for the same 
organizations that planted the first crop of plants.

Thompson pointed to a marijuana eradication operation in Mendocino 
County last summer that pulled more than 1,000 plants. Two days 
later, Thompson said, Mendocino County Sheriff's Department deputies 
were flying over the site and reported seeing some activity on the 
ground. When they landed, Thompson said, they were shocked at what they found.

"Every hole was filled with a new plant," Thompson said.

When the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office busted a 26,000 plant grow 
near Hoopa recently, Sheriff Mike Downey said the site had been used 
and busted several years earlier.

But there is new push to make sure some of these sites are cleaned 
up, according to Tommy Lanier, head of the White House-funded 
National Marijuana Initiative.

With California's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting program, known 
as CAMP, strapped due to state budget cuts, the feds are looking to 
fill the void. Lanier said the federal public lands and drug 
enforcement agencies have gotten together and formed a new program, 
known as the Cannabis Eradication and Reclamation Team, that will put 
equal focus on pulling pot plants and cleaning up after the growers 
who planted them.

"That's a big priority for us -- to get the infrastructure out of 
these parks, to reduce the impacts and reclaim our watersheds," Lanier said.

Downey said he's also working to partner with other local and state 
agencies whenever his deputies bust a grow site, trying to make sure 
the operation is cleaned up afterward. In the Hoopa bust, Downey 
said, deputies left the cut down, immature marijuana plants on site 
and used the helicopters to pull out trash and the grow's infrastructure.

But all concede there are more grow operations out in the hills and 
forests than could possibly be busted, much less cleaned up and 
reforested, with current resources.

"We're trying to have enforcement actions target the people, 
organizations and operations that are the most egregious," Lanier said.

Randy Wagner, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement 
Agency's Northern California operations, said his agency is making a 
concerted effort to work with the Environmental Protection Agency and 
the Department of Fish and Game when conducting marijuana eradication 

In addition to having those agencies on board to possibly help 
investigate and prosecute growers for violating environmental laws, 
Wagner said they have the expertise to properly assess the 
environmental and health risks associated with the sites.

"When we're on location with someone, and we see something dangerous, 
we're not going to leave it behind," he said. "We're not going to 
leave a scene unsafe for people or the environment. We'll secure the 
area and bring in the experts in our agencies that can deal with the cleanup."

While law enforcement agencies seem to be paying increased attention 
to the environmental aspects of grow sites, officials say more 
studies are needed to bring even more resources to the table.

The UC Davis researchers are already looking into the impacts 
rodenticides may have on species other than the fisher and on 
ecosystems as a whole.

Lanier said he's looking to secure funding to have universities study 
the potential impacts of smoking marijuana that's been treated with 
heavy-duty pesticides and fertilizers.

Thompson said he's interested in seeing data on the impact marijuana 
grows have on watersheds and fisheries, noting that stream diversions 
and heavy fertilizer usage likely contribute to low flows and heavy 
algae blooms. As a congressman who has secured a great deal of 
funding for salmon studies and restoration over the last decade, 
Thompson said the situation is hugely frustrating.

"We're spending millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars, 
trying to restore our fisheries, and then these guys come along and 
just put all of our efforts back by light years," he said. "It's a 
huge, huge mess."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom