Growing Pains: Legalizing Marijuana Might Save Our National Forests

Trees damaged to make room for light to hit marijuana plants in a California national forest. | Photo: Courtesy USFS
Trees damaged to make room for light to hit marijuana plants in a California national forest. | Photo: Courtesy USFS

Since winter, they have been hiking up through high-country canyons, ravines, and creek beds seeking relatively flat ground with access to even a thin trickle of water. They drop their bulky backpacks, weighed down with tools, food, poison, plastic piping, and tents, and begin clearing the ground manually and with herbicides. Then they set to work laying out waterlines, building check dams, and digging into the hard ground so as to plant thousands of cannabis seeds.

Within weeks, the marijuana is growing quickly in the warm Southern California sun, fed with diverted streamflow and fertilizers, and protected from predators by the thick application of rodenticides and other toxicants. They lay waste to the land so that some might get rich and others stoned.

To keep profits high and overhead low, the drug cartels running these illegal grows have been targeting the U.S. public lands to devastating effect. That is the central theme of a new short film that Forest Service videographers Steve and Ann Dunsky have produced. As part of their RESTORE series, which focuses on a variety of ecological restoration projects across California, the Vallejo-based filmmakers here probe the unsettling impact that marijuana is having on the state's 20 million acres of national forests.

"Marijuana growing on public lands has been going on for 30 plus years, but they have just expanded dramatically," observes Daryl Rush, a special agent in the Forest Service's Law Enforcement and Investigations (LEI) unit. "Every forest is impacted and the majority of our workload is on marijuana investigations on the forest."

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Among those most battered is the San Bernardino National Forest, as the following data from 2013 reveals:

Pounds of infrastructure removed - 22,020
Feet of waterlines - 45,331
Restricted poisons - 99 oz.
Pounds of Fertilizer - 2,270
Common pesticides - 14 gallons
20-lb. Propane Bottles - 28
16-oz. propane bottles - 58
Car batteries -13
Dams/Reservoirs removed - 7

Officers from the California Department of Justice's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) and the U.S. Forest Service's LEI team uprooted, tore down, and hauled out this oft-dangerous stuff. They also managed to destroy 114,095 marijuana plants spread over 21 trespass grows, tough work in very rough terrain and under quite difficult circumstances.

Keep in mind this is but one forest. At the same time, strike forces were active on the Cleveland NF (nine grows yielding 16,579 plants), the Angeles (27 sites budding with 76,400 plants), and the Los Padres (where they destroyed a bumper crop of 181,139 plants on 60 sites -- the worst record in the state).

As bad as this data is, know that the reality on these four national forests is much worse: given the difficulty in detecting these illegal sites, hidden by tree canopies and only accessible by climbing up a rugged and steep landscapes, officers can only make a small dent in the growing operations.

That's as true across the Golden State. The Forest Service reports that in 2012, "nearly 83 percent of the 1,048,768 plants eradicated from National Forests were eradicated in California," making it the national epicenter. Other hard-hit forests include the Sequoia (113,737 plants), Shasta-Trinity (158,261), Sierra (96,052), and Plumas (74,009). "Criminal organizations are exploiting some of our most pristine public and tribal lands," according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, "as grow sites for marijuana."

Yet even this bad news does not convey the dire situation on the ground. Consider all those canisters, boxes, and bottles of pesticides, herbicides, and rodenticides, a wickedly toxic brew poured on to the land and working its way into the biota, terrestrial and riparian.

The Pacific fisher, a rare and secretive mammal that lives in the same remote locations that growers degrade, has shown clear evidence of being poisoned. As I wrote last year, scientists at UC-Berkeley's Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project have autopsied carcasses of fishers and determined that nearly 80% had been exposed to anticoagulants. There is little doubt among scientists or law enforcement officials that the source of these poisons is marijuana plantations.

Compounding the fisher's vulnerability is the interwoven nature of its diet, which consists of small mammals, birds, and fruit, scrumptious fare that contributes as well to its intake of toxicants. That same is true for the food that eagles, owls, and vultures, mountain lions, and foxes consume. In San Diego County, the Los Angeles Times has reported, 90 percent of birds of prey tested had rat poison in their bloodstream. Our beautiful forests, and the critical biodiversity they sustain, are becoming lethal.

They are so for humans, too. The threat that these armed trespass growers pose to hikers and officers cannot be discounted. The number of weapons confiscated from the sites -- including high-powered assault rifles -- in conjunction with anecdotes of gun-toting "farmers" menacing folks who stumble on their grows, has spiked over the past two years. This dangerous situation also creates a chill factor, limiting people's access to the Great Outdoors, to the splendid recreational opportunities these national forests offer to millions of Californians.

"These are areas that I would come and gather acorns or I would gather medicinals and herbs," Merv George told the filmmakers Dunsky, and yet "now when I come or want to take my family out into the woods, it does make you think" before striking off on a trail.

Increased safety will never be fully achieved by the important, if ad hoc, campaign to root out illegal marijuana grows. There are too many of these sites, and they are too difficult to locate, to insure their complete eradication. Besides, the demand for marijuana, and the cash to be made from its production, distribution, and sale is so great, that the drug-thug investors have little incentive to alter their business model.

To crackdown on their lucrative trade, in July 2013 Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) introduced a bipartisan-supported piece of legislation in Congress, entitled the PLANT Act (Protecting Lands Against Narcotics Trafficking Act). If passed, it would have instructed the U.S. Sentencing Commission to "establish penalties for the environmental damage caused by marijuana cultivation and other controlled substance production on 'trespass grows' on private property or on federal public lands."

Two weeks ago, in advance of congressional legislation, the commission adopted the stronger sentencing guidelines Huffman and his peers had proposed.

That's a good start. What would more meaningfully disrupt growers' brutal impact on the land is the legalization of marijuana. Although in 2010, Proposition 19, which would have allowed cannabis production in California under regulatory controls, was defeated at the polls, much has changed in the intervening years. The states of Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana, and the California Democratic Party, the dominant force in state politics, has placed legalization on its party platform. Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom has been at the forefront of those making the case:

Were voters to take this bold step, they'd also liberate 20 million acres of national forests in the Golden State, allowing them to spring back to life.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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