Reefer Madness: Our National Forests Going To Pot

Thousands of marijuana plants growing in the Angeles National Forest | Photo via the L.A. County Sheriff's Department

Last summer was a busy time on the Angeles National Forest. The Forest Service and its contractors expended a lot of cash and energy restoring the badly burned terrain in the aftermath of the 2009 Station fire. Caltrans and its crews labored to reconstruct the torched and washed-out roads that had been damaged during the historic blaze that consumed 250 square miles. Although shut out from the blackened portions of the San Gabriel Mountains, tens of thousands of Angelenos recreated there along trails, creeks and rivers--hiking, running, biking, boating and fishing.They gamboled in this island of green set within a sea of concrete.

Some of that green was a bit more worrisome than others: throughout that summer and into the fall, LA County sheriffs collaborated with the Forest Service and other law-enforcement agencies in raiding marijuana-growing sites on the Angeles, scattered across some of the most remote and difficult landscapes in the state. These almost-weekly actions would give new meaning to the official name of the Forest Service's domain: the National Forests and Grasslands.

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By June, 2010 they already had pulled out and destroyed upwards of 96,000 plants, a cash crop worth an estimated $192 million. Then, in early July, US Department of Drug Enforcement agents teamed up with local forces on two major busts in the vicinity of Fish Canyon and Knapp Ranch. With police helicopters whirling overhead, the eradication teams weeded out more than 11,000 plants valued at $22 million. As with other such efforts, they also cleaned out almost a ton of trash, irrigation pipes, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, tools and other material the growers had used to manage their illegal crop.

Later that same month, the task force once again hit paydirt: after getting reports from hikers of suspicious activities in the forest, it sent three teams up a series of ridgelines and creekbeds, discovering 41 sites which were home to nearly 17,500 plants (street value: $35 million). Streams had been diverted by crude check dams whose flow then was piped to the cultivated fields; crews spent days cleaning out the irrigation systems and sweeping up the hazardous waste, and nearly 1000 pounds of garbage were airlifted out of the narrow canyons.

Even less accessible was a four-acre plot located in late September, half-a-mile up a steep, chaparral-choked slope in Cow Canyon, off the Glendora Ridge Road near Mt Baldy Village. To get to it, agents had to bushwack into this rough country, and just missed capturing the grower--a radio was blaring when the team arrived at the site. As some officers eradicated 650 plants, others stripped out irrigation infrastructure, bagged trash, and returned the nearby creek to its natural course, clearing the way for crews to revegetate the cutover slope.

These are only some of the reported incidents during the summer of 2010, a reflection of the serious impact marijuana production is having on the Angeles. "These illegal marijuana grows do more than just harm the people who use illicit marijuana, they destroy and poison public lands," affirmed Captain Ralph Ornelas head of the LA County Sheriff's Narcotics Bureau. "The many agencies involved in these operations will continue our aggressive efforts to clear the public land of this menace, so that the forest remains available for present and future generations."

That's pretty tough talk. It seems justified, too, for the Angles National Forest has become a key node in the regional production and distribution of marijuana, which County Sheriff Lee Baca has projected to be a $1.2 billion industry.

However substantial this appears, it is nothing compared to the massive output that is flowing from the Emerald Triangle in Northern California: Humboldt, Lake and Mendocino counties--and particularly the national forests and state lands that lie within this region--are responsible for approximately 80% of the state's illegal growing. That's a ton of weed.

Actually, it may run as high as 49,105 metric tons. So reports the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, which issued data on the last four years of eradication efforts in California. With 2006 as its baseline, when 2,642,352 plants were seized, the number climbed to 4,961,313 in 2007; rose to 5,432,053 in 2008, and one year alter soared to 7,519,580 plants. The report assumes that this impressive spike (over a 300% increase in that time) reflects an intensification of production across those years; and it also assumes that the authorities may be interdicting but 15% of that which is being grown outdoors.The agency's conservative estimate of what authorities did not capture is 49 million plants.

Too much information? Probably. But the data gives some feel for the enormity of the policing problem facing forest rangers, county sheriffs, and federal law enforcement. You should be wary, too: before heading off on a cross-country hike, be sure to read this post from KCET's Zach Behrens on the basic rules to follow to insure your safety should you stumble on a grow.

That there are some profound consequences for the land itself almost goes without saying. To prepare even a small site, growers often hack down trees and undergrowth, which can lead to significant erosion.They routinely apply chemical fertilizers and herbicides to nourish the plants and keep down weeds, toxic effluent that can leech into ground and surface waters.The same goes for human waste. Every time they block a stream, they compromise riparian habitat and harm the wildlife that depends on it. Garbage piles attract rats and other invasive species.

There is "no grey area when it comes to this aspect of illegal marijuana grows," restoration experts have confirmed; "the wildlife is killed, plain and simple. Traps are set, deer, bear, and grey squirrels are poached, and mice are poisoned. Based on the tools that have been collected and the carcasses that have been identified, the growers are engaged in a war with the natural world for the resources they require to continue their production of marijuana."

The concentrated effort to stop this despoliation has led the local, state, and federal agents engaged in this oft-dangerous work to refer to themselves as the Thin Green Line. They do not see their actions simply as a piece of the controversial War on Drugs, but as a battle to protect and preserve imperiled landscapes. Yet there is not enough money or labor to do this critical rehab work. In 2010, volunteer restoration teams managed to reclaim 70 sites across the state, but more than 800 had been identified. Still, they and law enforcement do what they can.

Or, better, do what they feel they must. Lt. John Nores, Jr., of California's Department of Fish and Game makes this case in War in the Woods: Combating the Marijuana Cartels on America's Public Lands, a hyped-up if compelling account of the anguish he and his comrades feel at the end of each operation. Notwithstanding the book's evocation of Vietnam--camouflaged strike forces slipping though a dense tangle wary of booby traps and stalking a well-armed enemy--it also advocates full restoration of the abused land.

Just before taking down an illegal dam that fed a major cultivation site along Bonjetti Creek in eastern face of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Nores muses:

The creek water above the dam is clean, clear, and cold, just like a high-mountain trout stream in California's Sierra Nevada. The surrounding ferns, grasses, and thick tree canopies above the creek are similarly pristine and beautiful....Standing here I have a hard time imagining that more than a million people are hustling around the San José area only a short distance from us, and yet these amazing natural areas are so close and provide so much to our environment and its wildlife species.

For him, this was not just another drug bust.

Stopping such "environmental crimes" will increase in complexity in the coming years. Drug cartels have figured out that growing marijuana on U. S. national forests is a good deal cheaper and easier than trying to smuggle it across the now-thoroughly militarized US-Mexico border. That in Southern California there are four national forests and lots of state and local public lands close to the region's massive population, and its robust network of freeways, only adds to their focus on this market and its massive transportation system.

Surely those factors help account for this ominous statistic: in 2009, LA County recorded the fifth highest number of plant seizures in California. It wasn't on the top ten in 2006.

Watch Cannabis Cowboys, a KCET/SoCal Connected segment in a duPont-Columbia award-winning marijuana series, Up in Smoke.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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