Marijuana Crops in California Threaten Forests

Jun 20, 2013

It took the death of a small, rare mem­ber of the weasel fam­ily to focus the atten­tion of North­ern California’s mar­i­juana grow­ers on the impact that their huge and expand­ing activ­i­ties were hav­ing on the envi­ron­ment. The ani­mal, a Pacific fisher, had been poi­soned by an anti­co­ag­u­lant in rat poi­sons like d-Con. Since then, six other poi­soned fish­ers have been found. Two endan­gered spot­ted owls tested pos­i­tive. Mourad W. Gabriel, a sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, con­cluded that the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion began when mar­i­juana grow­ers in deep forests spread d-Con to pro­tect their plants from wood rats. That news has helped grow­ers acknowl­edge, reluc­tantly, what their antag­o­nists in law enforce­ment have long main­tained: like indus­trial log­ging before it, the boom­ing busi­ness of mar­i­juana is a threat to forests whose loom­ing dark red­woods pre­side over vibrant ecosys­tems. Hill­tops have been lev­eled to make room for the crop. Bull­doz­ers start land­slides on erosion-prone moun­tain­sides. Road and dam con­struc­tion clogs some streams with dis­lodged soil. Oth­ers are bled dry by diver­sions. Lit­tle water is left for salmon whose pop­u­la­tions have been dec­i­mated by log­ging. And local and state juris­dic­tions’ abil­ity to deal with the prob­lem has been hob­bled by, among other things, the drug’s murky legal sta­tus. It is approved by the state for med­ical uses but still ille­gal under fed­eral law, lead­ing to a patch­work of grow­ers. Some oper­ate within state rules, while oth­ers oper­ate totally out­side the law. The envi­ron­men­tal dam­age may not be as exten­sive as that caused by the 19th-century dik­ing of the Hum­boldt estu­ary here, or 20th-century clear-cut log­ging, but the roman­tic out­law drug has become a destruc­tive jug­ger­naut, experts agree. “In my career I’ve never seen any­thing like this,” said Stormer Feiler, a sci­en­tist with California’s North Coast Regional Water Qual­ity Con­trol Board. “Since 2007 the amount of unreg­u­lated activ­i­ties has exploded.” He added, “They are grad­ing the moun­tain­tops now, so it affects the whole water­shed below.” Scott Bauer, of the state Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife, said, “I went out on a site yes­ter­day where there was an active water diver­sion pro­vid­ing water to 15 dif­fer­ent groups of peo­ple or indi­vid­u­als,” many of them grow­ers. “The stream is going to dry up this year.” While it is hard to find data on such an indus­try, Anthony Sil­vag­gio, a soci­ol­ogy lec­turer at Hum­boldt State Uni­ver­sity, pointed to anec­do­tal evi­dence in a Google Earth vir­tual “fly­over” he made of the indus­trial farm plots and the dam­age they cause. The video was later enhanced and dis­trib­uted by Mother Jones mag­a­zine. Brad Job’s ter­ri­tory as a fed­eral Bureau of Land Man­age­ment offi­cer includes pub­lic lands favored, he said, by Mex­i­can drug car­tels whose envi­ron­men­tal prac­tices are the most destruc­tive. “The water­shed was already lying on the ground bleed­ing,” Mr. Job said. “The peo­ple who divert water in the sum­mer are kick­ing it in the stom­ach.” That water is cru­cial to restor­ing local runs of imper­iled Coho salmon, Chi­nook salmon and steel­head, which swam up Eel River trib­u­taries by the tens of thou­sands before the log­ging era. Scott Grea­cen, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Friends of the Eel River, said, “It’s not weed that drove the Coho to the brink of extinc­tion, but it may kick it over the edge.” By var­i­ous esti­mates, each plant needs at least one gal­lon and as much as six gal­lons of water dur­ing a sea­son. The idea that the counterculture’s crop of choice is bad for the envi­ron­ment has gone down hard here. Mar­i­juana is an eco­nomic sta­ple, par­tic­u­larly in Hum­boldt County’s rural south­ern end, called SoHum. Jen­nifer Bud­wig, the vice pres­i­dent of a local bank, esti­mated last year that mar­i­juana infused more than $415 mil­lion into the county’s annual eco­nomic activ­ity, one-quarter of the total. For the pro­fessed hip­pies who moved here decades ago, mar­i­juana farm­ing com­bines defi­ance of society’s stric­tures, shared com­mu­nal val­ues and a steady income. “Mar­i­juana has had a frame­work that started in the 1930s with jazz musi­cians,” said Gregg Gold, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Hum­boldt State Uni­ver­sity. “It’s a cul­tural icon of resis­tance to author­ity.” “In 2013,” he added, “you’re ask­ing that we reframe it in people’s minds as just another agribusi­ness. That’s a huge shift.” It is a thriv­ing agribusi­ness. Derek Roy, a spe­cial agent enforc­ing endan­gered species pro­tec­tions for the National Marine Fish­eries Ser­vice, said, “These grow sites con­tinue to get larger and larger.” Things took off after 1996, when Cal­i­for­nia decrim­i­nal­ized the use of med­ical mar­i­juana, Mr. Roy said. The older farm­ers say that as the fierce antidrug cam­paigns waned and the med­ical mar­i­juana mar­ket devel­oped, new­com­ers arrived eager to cash in, par­tic­u­larly in the past decade, accord­ing to two grow­ers who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity. “There is a gold rush,” Mr. Grea­cen said. “And it’s a race to the bot­tom in terms of envi­ron­men­tal impacts.” Now that Col­orado and Wash­ing­ton vot­ers have approved the recre­ational use of the drug, there is a wide­spread belief that the days of high prices for mar­i­juana are nearly over. As Mikal Jakubal, a res­i­dent of SoHum who is direct­ing a doc­u­men­tary film about Hum­boldt County’s mar­i­juana busi­ness, puts it, “Every­one thinks, ‘This might be the last good year.’ ” That helps fuel the willy-nilly expan­sion of cul­ti­va­tion, the tear­ing up of hill­sides and the diver­sions that dry out creeks. The worst dam­age is on pub­lic lands. There, exten­sive plant­i­ngs are sur­rounded by d-Con-laced tuna and sar­dine cans placed around perime­ters by the dozens, Dr. Gabriel said. Mr. Job of the land man­age­ment bureau said these ille­gal oper­a­tions have 70,000 to 100,000 plants; they are believed to be the work of Mex­i­can drug car­tels. But small farm­ers have an impact, too. Mr. Bauer of the State Fish and Wildlife Depart­ment said that when he found the water diver­sion last week and asked those respon­si­ble about it, “these peo­ple we met with were point­ing a fin­ger all over the water­shed, say­ing: ‘We’re not that big. There are big­ger peo­ple out there.’ ” Fed­eral envi­ron­men­tal agents, includ­ing Mr. Roy and Mr. Job, have brought two cases to the United States attorney’s office in San Fran­cisco. The office declined to pros­e­cute a case last year, they said. A new one is under review. But, they said, man­power for enforce­ment is lim­ited. Given fed­eral pro­hi­bi­tions against prof­it­ing from mar­i­juana, county offi­cials have a lim­ited tool­box. “We have land-use author­ity, that’s it,” said Mark Lovelace, a Hum­boldt County super­vi­sor. He chafes at the county’s inabil­ity to estab­lish a sys­tem of per­mits, for fear of run­ning afoul of fed­eral law. His board did just pass a res­o­lu­tion ask­ing local busi­nesses not to sell d-Con. (A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Reckitt Benckiser, which makes the poi­son, wrote a let­ter of protest.) Mr. Lovelace and oth­ers con­tend that legal­iz­ing mar­i­juana would open the door to reg­u­la­tion and put the brakes on envi­ron­men­tal abuses. In the mean­time, the indus­try has begun to police itself. Some grow­ers have ben­e­fited from a pro­gram run by a local non­profit orga­ni­za­tion, Sanc­tu­ary For­est, that sub­si­dizes the instal­la­tion of tanks that can store water in the win­ter, when it is plen­ti­ful, for use in dry months. “There may be peo­ple who grow pot in our group,” said Tasha McKee, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Sanc­tu­ary For­est. “I’m sure there are. We don’t ask that ques­tion.” A local group, the Emer­ald Grow­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, recently pro­duced a hand­book on sus­tain­able prac­tices. “There is an iden­tity cri­sis going on right now,” said Gary Gra­ham Hughes, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Infor­ma­tion Cen­ter in Arcata. “The peo­ple who are really involved with this indus­try are try­ing to under­stand what their respon­si­bil­i­ties are.” A ver­sion of this arti­cle appeared in print on June 21, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edi­tion with the head­line: Mar­i­juana Crops in Cal­i­for­nia Threaten Forests and Wildlife. Source: New York Times (NY) Author: Felic­ity Bar­ringer Pub­lished: June 21, 2013 Copy­right: 2013 The New York Times Com­pany Con­tact: letters@​nytimes.​com Web­site: http://​www​.nytimes​.com/

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Mar­i­juana Crops in Cal­i­for­nia Threaten Forests

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