Pubdate: Fri, 25 Jul 2014
Source: Press Democrat, The (Santa Rosa, CA)
Copyright: 2014 The Press Democrat
Author: Glenda Anderson


ELK - Deep in a private Mendocino Coast forest, trees and brush give 
way to terraced clearings, miles of crisscrossing black irrigation 
tubing and campsites littered with cooking pans, empty food and beer 
cans, sleeping bags and toxic pesticides. They are the remnants of a 
marijuana garden where a multi-agency law enforcement effort last 
year seized more than 8,000 plants.

The environmental damage here is a microcosm of what's happening 
nationwide as illegal pot cultivation continues to thrive despite 
decades of eradication efforts. Marijuana operations claiming to be 
medicinal, and thus legal in California, also are expanding 
exponentially, largely without regulation.

Marijuana growers have clear cut forests, eroded hillsides, dammed, 
polluted and sucked dry streams and poisoned wildlife. It's not 
uncommon to find dead animals near pot gardens, wildlife officials say.

"This is probably the worst environmental crime I have ever seen in 
my life. It is literally ripping out the resources of this state," 
said California Fish and Wildlife Capt. Nathaniel Arnold, who heads 
the department's marijuana enforcement team.

Nationally, more than 4 million marijuana plants were seized last 
year from outdoor gardens according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement 
Agency. Of those, almost two-thirds, 2.7 million, were found in 
California. Many more plants are being grown for alleged medicinal 
uses and some of those pot growers are guilty of the same 
environmental crimes as illegal cultivators, according to regulatory 
agencies charged with protecting natural resources.

The pot gardens are of particular concern now, as California's worst 
drought in decades drags on and water becomes increasingly precious. 
Pot plants are thirsty, requiring an average of 6 gallons a day each, 
according to wildlife officials. Some marijuana advocates say water 
use is much less than that estimate, while others say it can be 
nearly three times as much, depending on the size of the plant and 
where it is being grown. That adds up to billions of gallons and, in 
some watersheds, insufficient or poor water quality for fish, undoing 
millions of dollars in work aimed at restoring endangered species.

"It's a huge, huge impact. It's been listed as a very high threat and 
stressor in our recent recovery plans for coho salmon and steelhead," 
said Rick Rogers, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine 
Fisheries Service.

Marijuana farming, unlike other types of agriculture, is mostly 
unregulated and growers, including purported medicinal producers, 
often operate outside the law. They've bulldozed hilltops without 
permits, illegally dammed streams to supply water to their plants and 
used pesticides that are so dangerous they're not sold in this country.

The state's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting reported dismantling 
89 illegal dams or reservoirs used to irrigate pot gardens in 2013.

Fish and Wildlife officials last year removed 129 illegal dams, officials said.

Water and wildlife officials say they're outnumbered by pot growers 
and can't investigate all the complaints they receive, which can ramp 
up this time of year as the harvest and clipping season arrives.

Cases that have been investigated include three water diversions on 
one tributary to the Navarro River in Comptche, west of Ukiah.

The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board recently reached 
an agreement with a landowner who rented his property to pot growers 
who bulldozed a hilltop. He's required to pay $56,404 in penalties 
and repair the damage, expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Rogers and others say the problem is only getting worse as people 
seek to cash in on the "new gold rush" that is marijuana production.

The boom in medical pot farms has led to a decline in pot prices, 
which in turn has caused people to grow even more to make up for 
their income losses, further exacerbating the problem, state and 
federal law enforcement and environmental officials say.

Both public and private lands are suffering as a result.

Following a massive crackdown on public lands in 2011, there appears 
to have been a shift toward trespass operations on privately owned 
timberlands, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said.

"We're certainly seeing private timber companies being the victims of 
the most egregious grows," he said.

They include Mendocino Redwood Co. forest land, where on Saturday a 
dozen armed workers in camouflage removed 13 helicopter slingloads of 
trash, each weighing between 300 and 500 pounds, said Paul Trouette, 
whose Lear Asset Management, a private security company, conducted the cleanup.

The cleanup crew Saturday was armed because marijuana growers have 
been known to shoot at people who come near their gardens, including 
law enforcement officers, hikers and landowners.

On Wednesday, Trinity County sheriff's deputies fired on an armed man 
who raised his weapon toward them in a marijuana garden in the 
Shasta-Trinity Forest.

Law enforcement seized 4,655 weapons from marijuana gardens 
nationwide last year, according to the DEA.

Saturday's cleanup operation was funded by a state Fish and Wildlife 
grant to the Mendocino County Blacktail Association, a nonprofit 
hunting and preservation organization to which Trouette belongs and 
currently leads as president. Trouette said he abstained from voting 
on the cleanup contract the hunting group awarded to his firm. He 
said he expects to restore about seven sites with the $78,244 grant.

Few others are available to hire for cleanup on private properties, 
Trouette said. State regulators did not know of others, besides the 
mostly volunteer, nonprofit High Sierra Volunteer Trail Group, based in Fresno.

The Jere Melo Foundation also was involved with the forest land 
cleanup Saturday. Melo, a timberland manager and former Fort Bragg 
mayor, was gunned down in 2011 by a mentally disturbed man while 
investigating reports of trespassing in the forest near Fort Bragg.

The sheer volume of marijuana being grown is exacting a heavy toll on 
public lands, as well. In 2013, 209,594 marijuana plants were 
eradicated from Bureau of Land Management properties in California, 
officials said. The U.S. Forest Service reported more than a million 
plants were eradicated from federal forest land last year.

The federal forest land figures for seized plants are up slightly 
from last year but only about half what it was in 2010, before the 
concerted crackdown on pot growing in national forests.

The problem has garnered widespread attention and generated 
legislative efforts.

"Large trespass marijuana operations endanger the public with 
violence and threats of wildfires, pollute streams and wetlands, 
poison wildlife, fund criminal drug trafficking organizations and 
undo significant federal, state and private investment in the 
landscape," Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, wrote in a 
recent letter to U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, urging her to focus 
enforcement efforts on trespassing marijuana growers.

Huffman is among the state and federal lawmakers who have sponsored 
legislation that includes ways to help fund cleanups.

More needs to be done to repair and safeguard forests, said Madeleine 
Melo, Jere Melo's widow and head of the foundation that bears his name.

She noted that myriad agencies have some funding for cleanups, but 
it's insufficient and the efforts are fragmented. The California 
Department of Fish and Wildlife has just 396 law enforcement officers 
statewide and only 10 are dedicated to marijuana, Capt. Arnold said.

"I think there's not enough funding to find the gardens and take them 
out," Melo said.

Melo said there needs to be a concentrated, cohesive plan. She thinks 
the governor should give the affected agencies the authority to 
create a coalition to combat marijuana's environmental problems.

"Give them the authority to treat it like any other disaster," she said.

Others, however, say enforcement is futile. It has so far failed to 
discourage marijuana production or avert the growing environmental 
problems associated with cultivation, noted Mendocino County 
Supervisors John Pinches and Dan Hamburg. They suggest legalizing and 
regulating the industry, much like alcohol.

"It's kind of a fool's errand" to continue to spend money on 
eradication, Hamburg said.

"The solution is legalization. You're not going to eliminate the 
demand for marijuana. People love it," Pinches said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom