By Jane Hendron – U.S. Fish and Wildlife
At first glance, California’s 45 million acres of public lands seem like havens for recreation and wildlife. But off the beaten path, away from the maintained trails and people, there is a different story. Some of these secluded areas are being overrun with illegal marijuana growing operations, resulting in degraded habitat and toxic trash that leads directly to wildlife deaths and serious threats to local water supplies.
“Illegal marijuana grow areas really put a strain on our resources,” said Polly Wheeler, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System in California, Nevada and the Klamath Basin. “Not only is it expensive to find and reclaim these sites, they are hazardous to our employees, the public, the environment and the wildlife that live on our refuges.”
The refuge system law enforcement program began tracking marijuana cultivation sites in 1997. In recent years, refuge law enforcement officers have discovered and eradicated destructive sites on Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge outside Elk Grove, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos and the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near Willows, California. On average, the Service discovers about three major grow sites a year in the state.
Grow sites are especially common in “the Emerald Triangle” – an area encompassing Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties. They have been found on the Bureau of Land Management’s Beauty Mountain Wilderness Study Area in Riverside County, in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and in a designated Wilderness Area of Sequoia National Park.
In California, between 2011 and 2015, more than 8,000 illegal outdoor grow sites were detected and eradicated, and most of them were on federally managed land.
“Illegal marijuana grow sites have been a problem for a while, but they get worse every year,” Wheeler said. “Earlier this year, we found about 15,000 plants and 1,400 pounds of trash at an illegal site on Sacramento Refuge.”
Many of these marijuana cultivation sites are made up of several acres that are linked together by networks of unauthorized trails and irrigation lines.
The amount of new habitat impacted by these grows amounts to several thousand acres annually.
Typically, when one site is eradicated, another site goes up in a different spot. One of the major impacts from these operations is water diversion from streams and creeks.
Taking a Toll on the State’s Natural Resources
Illegal marijuana cultivation requires water—and lots of it. Scientists estimate it takes six gallons of water per day for a single marijuana plant. When wildlife biologist Mark Higley discovered a grow site on the Hoopa Tribe’s reservation in 2012, he was taken aback by the expanse.
“There were more than 26,000 plants spread among six different patches along a mile of stream that supports anadromous [salmon and steelhead] fish,” Higley said. “To grow that many plants, they needed enough water to fill about 27 Olympic-sized swimming pools! And that’s just one site.”
In addition to the water, trash on these illegal cultivation sites is also a problem.
“Everything from tents and utensils to fuel and human waste is left out on these sites,” said Rick Fleming, executive director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew. Fleming’s trail crew is trained to clean-up these illegal sites, which can be toxic to humans and to wildlife.
In 2013, Higley and his cleanup crew were at an illegal grow site when they discovered how some growers were keeping wildlife from destroying the marijuana plants.
“Growers strung hot dogs on fish hooks to attract and kill nearby animals. While I was there, I came across a dead Pacific fisher,” Higley said.
The crew collected samples of the nearby fish hooks and sent the samples in for testing.
The hooks tested positive for methomyl, a powerful, broad-spectrum insecticide that is highly toxic to humans, livestock and wildlife. Formulations with more than one percent of methomyl are considered restricted-use pesticides and are not allowed for use in households or by non-professionals.
“These are dangerous chemicals, and it’s alarming that some people are using them for this,” Higley said.
While there is no research to quantify how these chemicals are affecting the aquatic environment, Darren Mierau, North Coast director for CalTrout, says the illegal marijuana cultivation sites are adding to the already serious issue.
“It’s nearly impossible to track impacts from these illegal sites to native fish populations,” Mierau said. “But we are currently at five to 10 percent of historic population levels, and this is another wound.”
The Mammoth Task of Clean Up
With the quantities of trash and hazardous chemicals at these illegal grow sites, cleanup is complicated, time consuming and costly. However, many government agencies and non-governmental organizations are doing their best to combine funding, hazardous materials expertise and muscle to reclaim as many illegal grow sites as possible.
Donna Rupp, project coordinator for the Trinity County Resource Conservation District, obtained funding for cleanup efforts through the CalRecycle Program, a program for cleaning up illegal dump sites on public or private land that is zoned for timber or agriculture. The Resource Conservation District has a core group of four to five trained employees who assist with grow site cleanups. In addition, the Watershed Research and Training Center provides additional manpower for cleanup projects.
“We work together on many projects, and this kind is important to both crews,” Rupp said.
Since 2014, the Trinity County Resource Conservation District and the Integral Ecology Research Center, led by Dr. Mourad Gabriel, a biologist and the center’s executive director, have partnered to reclaim eight illegal grow sites. CalRecycle recently awarded the conservation district a two-year (2016-2018), $90,000 grant. The grant is split between illegal grow cleanup and other illegal dump sites. CalRecycle also provides more than $140,000 to the Coursegold Resource Conservation District for illegal grow cleanup on Sierra National Forest and private lands.
In addition to Integral Ecology’s trained staff, the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew has a special cadre of volunteers called the ERT – Eradication Response Team – who are certified to handle hazardous materials and provide help with cleanup efforts.
“The ERT began in 2008 because the Forest Service needed folks to help with cleanups,” Fleming said. “We work mostly in the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests, but we’ve been to Mendocino and Los Padres National Forests as well.”
Although many individuals and groups are willing to help with reclamation activities, the scope and overall costs are overwhelming.
According to Carol Underhill, a public affairs officer for the Shasta Trinity National Forest, limited hours in a day and limited funding and staff all play a part in how much time their law enforcement employees spend at the sites after eradication and security duties are done.
Costs include: staff time for law enforcement officers needed to ensure crew safety, employee salaries, fuel, and the costs of disposing of hazardous materials. For remote sites, helicopters are sometimes needed.
However, just because a site is cleaned, does not mean it will stay that way. If the infrastructure—water lines or plant roots—remains, sites may be re-established. This is something Higley saw first-hand.
“We went back to one site a few weeks later and found an upturned bucket with a fresh bar of soap,” he said. “Someone was back at work.”
The Service works with other federal agencies to locate, eradicate and reclaim illegal grow sites. It costs the Service between $10,000 and $15,000 per acre to eradicate and reclaim illegal sites on refuge land.
“Reclaiming these sites is just as important as getting rid of the illegal plants, and rehabbing these areas is the most expensive part.” Wheeler said.
While the various organizations continue to work together to limit habitat loss and disturbance from illegal marijuana grow sites, that’s not all they are aiming to accomplish. They are hoping this issue will bring people together.
“When you bring up public lands and the legacy of contamination of our lands, both sides of the aisle can come together,” said Gabriel, who continues to lead efforts to combat illegal marijauna growing on public lands. “Whether you are there to conserve the fish or there to recreate, this problem conflicts equally with those goals. And we all have to do something to tackle this issue.”