Pubdate: Sat, 27 Jun 2015
Source: Press Democrat, The (Santa Rosa, CA)
Copyright: 2015 The Press Democrat
Author: Glenda Anderson


More than 86,500 marijuana plants were seized this week during a 
four-day eradication operation in the heart of Northern California's 
Emerald Triangle, where law enforcement officials from three counties 
also reported finding "egregious" environmental violations.

The plants, along with cash, firearms and thousands of pounds of 
dried pot, were confiscated from the remote Island Mountain region 
where Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties meet. Some 30 to 40 
people - mostly law enforcement officers from the three counties' 
sheriff's departments, assisted by Fish and Wildlife and a handful of 
National Guard officers - participated in the assault on what they 
say were obviously illegal growing operations, most of which included 
more than 1,000 plants each.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said Friday it was among the 
largest pot eradication operations since a six-county action in 2011, 
dubbed Operation Full Court Press, that removed some 630,000 plants 
from the Mendocino National Forest.

"This is one of the largest we've had," he said. The entire area, 
composed of parcels ranging in size from 40 acres to 160 acres, 
contained one of the highest concentrations of illegal gardens in the 
three-county region, Allman said.

"This was the most abusive area," he said.

Four people were arrested during the operation, including three in 
Mendocino County and one in Trinity County. In most cases, the 
growers took off before law enforcement officers arrived. Allman said 
he suspected they'd been tipped off by radio reports about the endeavor.

But investigations into the gardens are continuing and further 
arrests are likely, the sheriffs said.

The operation began to take shape in April, when Allman said he first 
discussed cracking down on the Island Mountain area with the sheriffs 
from Humboldt and Trinity counties. He said he'd received numerous 
complaints from area residents as well as pilots who had flown over 
the region and were appalled by the environmental degradation they saw.

Law enforcement officers found "egregious environmental issues," Allman said.

Fish and Wildlife Lt. Chris Stoots said his department's team found 
97 environmental violations, 55 of them related to streambed 
alterations. Creeks have been dammed, filled in with dirt and 
diverted in order to make way for and provide water for the thirsty 
pot plants, which have been conservatively estimated to each use 
about 6 gallons of water a day. Investigators found large water tanks 
at several locations and, in one case, a gigantic bladder used by a 
marijuana farmer to store water.

Allman estimated the plants seized were sucking up some 500,000 
gallons of water a day.

There also were cases of unlawful grading on a large scale, with 
half-acre pads being bulldozed for cultivation, Stoots said.

He said water in a nearby fork of the Eel River was hardly flowing 
and was full of algae, likely generated by runoff from fertilizer.

"There's a broad spectrum of environmental damage there," he said.

The raids come at a time when growers, state regulators and law 
enforcement leaders are trying to work together to hammer out rules 
in anticipation that California may follow other states and legalize 
marijuana for recreational use. An initiative is widely expected to 
go before the state's voters next year.

"We need them to be partners and collaborators" in creating 
regulations, said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the Emerald 
Growers Association, an advocacy group for medical marijuana farmers, 
business owners and patients.

The raids "are the absolute opposite of that," Allen said.

Allman said the growers are well aware of current regulations and 
that they need to follow them until they change.

"The laws haven't changed yet," he said.

Marijuana advocates in Humboldt and Mendocino counties have said they 
don't have personal knowledge of the pot farms targeted in the raids 
but they believe most were probably what they would consider small 
farms because they were growing smallish plants in a manner that 
gradually deprives the plants of light to fool them into flowering 
early. Allen said those plants produce between an ounce and a 
quarter-pound of dried marijuana, rather than the 2 to 4 pounds from 
larger plants.

Allen is listed as an owner of one of the parcels that was raided 
this week but said he's not involved in growing pot and has 
previously attempted to remove his name from the deed.

"A thousand (of those) plants is a small farm," Allen said. He said 
the smaller plants also use less water than tree-sized ones, in part 
because they have a shorter growing season.

Allman said the smaller plants can produce 2 to 3 pounds of processed pot.

Of the plants confiscated, 45,553 were in Mendocino County, 23,211 
were in Humboldt County and 17,725 were in Trinity County. Humboldt 
County officials said the pot eradications they conducted were 
"average" for their department.

Mendocino County served nine search warrants during the eradication 
operation; Humboldt served seven; and Trinity served four, the sheriffs said.

Last summer and fall, the state's 59-day Campaign Against Marijuana 
Planting - better known as CAMP - seized 66,818 pot plants from 
Mendocino County, 37,455 from Humboldt County and 90,283 from Trinity 
County. The figures do not include plants seized by local agencies 
without state assistance the rest of the year. Statewide, CAMP 
confiscated 833,966 plants last year, down from the 939,722 
eradicated in 2013 and less than a quarter of the 4.5 million seized 
in 2009, according to CAMP statistics.

Allman said he and the other sheriffs plan to revisit Island Mountain 
in the fall and crack down on those who continue to flout the law.

"I have every reason to believe the grows will continue," he said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom