National Forest Foundation

Looking Behind the Curtain

National Forests, Conservation

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Occasionally, the NFF features blogs from our conservation partners looking to highlight critical conservation issues. This post is the second of a two part series examining the scourge of illegal marijuana growing operations on National Forests in Northern California. Thanks to Piper McDaniel, communication coordinator from the Watershed Research and Training Center in Hayfork, California, for submitting the posts and highlighting this important issue.

Read part 1 of this series, "Pay No Attention To The Crime Behind The Emerald Curtain," here.

Hidden behind the curtain of marijuana legalization issues that are occupying the political and media landscape of Northern California, trespass grows are an equally important issue that shares a need for environmental protections. Regions, like Northern California, that offer favorable growing conditions – climate, remote location, and low populations—will be forced to contend with the environmental impacts of marijuana farming on private and public lands.

Conservation groups have only recently begun to restore these trespass grow sites and assess the extensive damage they cause. The work of trespass grow site cleanups, referred to as reclamations, requires complex efforts to implement. Because the sites themselves are crime scenes, and growers often return to the sites, it’s risky for conservationists to be there, so to do the needed cleanup, law enforcement needs to be present to ensure their safety. This has set the stage for the uncommon marriage of conservationists and law enforcement.

The unusual work of trespass grow cleanups has been spearheaded by the Integral Ecology Research Center, and Executive Director Dr. Mourad Gabriel, the driving force behind the effort, has become a key liaison to federal and state law enforcement. There is a lot of trust required to implement a cleanup. Law enforcement must feel confident in the restoration groups, know they have sound judgment and that they can be relied upon for discretion. Publicizing the cleanup of a trespass grow too soon, for example, could jeopardize the safety of the effort. Law enforcement also needs to know that their conservationist counterparts will work with their officers well, take heed of instruction and respect the oversight of those who ultimately have authority over the crime scene.

Without significant long-term funding to implement cleanups, it’s hard to gain ground in restoration work – at best current efforts are like treading water, and the number of grow sites is rising.

Trespass grows present a lot of challenges beyond coordinating with law enforcement. Once a site is discovered and the plants are removed, much of the materials brought in by the growers—non-native soil, soil bags, irrigation, food, trash and, of course, toxicants—remain on the landscape. This poses the problems of environmental degradation, water pollution and the spreading of poisons that travel throughout the food chain.

From a law enforcement perspective, they pose a different issue: site reuse by growers is a common occurrence that is extremely problematic. Many sites have been busted again and again throughout the years. Drug trafficking organizations have a lot of money, which means that they can afford a certain amount of busts. In the scheme of things, losing the yield of a site or two is part of the cost of doing business. To offset this loss, they establish even more grow sites while at the same time reusing sites that have been busted, but still have the infrastructure left behind.

Reclamations help fight crime, because the actual removal of a site prevents it from being reused. The reuse of sites, and the widespread development of new ones, means that the work to clean them up is a large scale task. Without significant long-term funding to implement cleanups, it’s hard to gain ground in restoration work – at best current efforts are like treading water, and the number of grow sites is rising.

Amazingly, much of this work is currently being accomplished with volunteers, constituting what has to be one of the more interesting volunteer opportunities around. In the world of environmental organizations and restoration agencies, limited funding often means relying on volunteers to supplement underfunded work, and volunteer opportunities provide an essential link between communities and their land. When trespass grow reclamations utilize volunteers, the usually separate worlds of law enforcement and environmental work collide.

Reclamations are a daunting task: the sites are remote and in rugged terrain, meaning that a work crew has to hike miles through very steep forest, cleanup gear in tow, just to access the site. Then, the actual dismantling of a site involves gathering and hauling soil bags, trash and poisons up steep mountains. Irrigation line, which weaves on for miles through the forest, must be cut, rolled, gathered and hauled. It’s hard work.

We are perilously overlooking a threat to our lands, and this environmental trajectory follows an utterly predictable path ending in ruin.

Once the materials are collected, they are still miles and miles out in the forest, far away from any road or trail. It’s nearly impossible to haul that much garbage that far through steep terrain. So to get it out, it’s gathered up in large nets and flown out by helicopter.

The logistics are not only complicated, but they come with a hefty price tag: the cost of helicopter use is typically $3,000 to $5,000 per day due to the remote location. Add to that the costs of numerous law enforcement officers, their travel and their lodging and things get expensive quickly. Because the Forest Service does not have specific funding allocated to trespass grow site clean ups, the agency is forced to take money away from other resources, such as conservation projects or law enforcement challenges. Agencies and environmental organizations are strapped for funding as well, making money for this work difficult to access.

The funding challenges in regards to implementing trespass grow cleanups are two-fold. One funding stream is needed to support restoration groups while a corresponding stream is needed to provide support for law enforcement to ensure the safety of the group. It becomes a large task to advocate for funding of this scope, but the need for it is mighty. Our landscape is bleeding, and current cleanup efforts are merely band-aids. Unreclaimed trespass grow sites are leeching pollutants into our public lands, awaiting the next round of drug traffickers to reuse them for another round of illegal farming.

The irreparable damage of trespass grows can still be prevented if reclamations are made a priority. We are perilously overlooking a threat to our lands, and this environmental trajectory follows an utterly predictable path ending in ruin. Ongoing marijuana policy changes that address environmental impacts need to consider not only the private sector, but also the tremendous damage being done by the trespass grows that are spreading in our national forests like an undiagnosed cancer.

To learn more about reclamation work and the environmental impacts of trespass grows, visit the Integral Ecology Research Center website: www.IERCecology.org

To learn more about reclamation work being conducted in the Northern California Area, and how you can support the effort, visit the Watershed Center website: www.thewatershedcenter.com

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