The Landscape-Scarring Reality of Pot Farming

Mar 18, 2014

Start­ing about 90 miles north­west of Sacra­mento, an unbro­ken swath of national forest­land fol­lows the spine of California’s rugged coastal moun­tains all the way to the Ore­gon bor­der. Near the cen­ter of this vast wilder­ness, along the grassy banks of the Trin­ity River’s south fork, lies the remote enclave of Hyam­pom (pop. 241), where, on a crisp Novem­ber morn­ing, I climb into a four-wheel-drive gov­ern­ment pickup and bounce up a dirt log­ging road deep into the Six Rivers National For­est. I’ve come to visit what’s known in cannabis coun­try as a “tres­pass grow.” “This one prob­a­bly has the most plants I’ve seen,” says my dri­ver, a young For­est Ser­vice cop who spends his sum­mers lug­ging an AR-15 through the back­coun­try of the Emer­ald Triangle—the triad of Hum­boldt, Men­do­cino, and Trin­ity coun­ties that is to pot what the Cen­tral Val­ley is to almonds and toma­toes. Fear­ing retal­i­a­tion from grow­ers, the offi­cer asks that I not use his name. Back in August he was hik­ing through the bush, try­ing to locate the grow from an aer­ial photo, when he sur­prised a guy car­ry­ing an iPod, gar­den­ing tools, and a 9 mm pis­tol on his hip. He arrested the man and alerted his tac­ti­cal team, which found about 5,500 plants grow­ing nearby, with a poten­tial street yield approach­ing $16 mil­lion. Today, a work crew is haul­ing away the detri­tus by heli­copter. Our lit­tle group, which includes a sec­ond fed­eral offi­cer and a For­est Ser­vice flack, hikes down an old skid trail lined with mossy oaks and madrones, pass­ing the scat of a moun­tain lion, and a few min­utes later, fresh black bear drop­pings. We fol­low what looks like a game trail to the lip of a wooded slope, a site known as Bear Camp. There, amid a scat­ter­ing of garbage bags dis­em­bow­eled by ani­mals, we find the grow­ers’ tarps and eight dingy sleep­ing bags, the propane grill where they had cooked oat­meal for break­fast, and the back­pack sprayers they used to douse the sur­round­ing 50 acres with chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers and pes­ti­cides. The air smells faintly of ammo­nia and weed. “This is uni­corns and rain­bows, isn’t it?” says Mourad Gabriel, a for­mer Uni­ver­sity of California-Davis wildlife ecol­o­gist who has joined us at the site, as he mani­a­cally stuffs a garbage bag with empty booze bot­tles, Vienna Beef sausage tins, and Miracle-Gro refill packs. Accord­ing to fed­eral stats, tres­pass grows in Cal­i­for­nia alone account for more than one-third of the cannabis seized nation­wide by law enforce­ment, which means they could well be the largest sin­gle source of domes­ti­cally grown mar­i­juana. Of course, nobody can say pre­cisely how much pot comes from indoor grows and pri­vate plots that are less acces­si­ble to the author­i­ties. What’s clear is that California’s mar­i­juana har­vest is vast—”likely the largest value crop (by far) in the state’s lineup,” notes the Field Guide to Cal­i­for­nia Agri­cul­ture. Assum­ing, as the guide does, that the author­i­ties seize about 10 per­cent of the har­vest, that means they would have left behind more than 10 mil­lion out­door plants last year, enough to yield about $31 bil­lion worth of prod­uct. That’s more than the com­bined value of the state’s top 10 legal farm com­modi­ties. Even before vot­ers in Col­orado and Wash­ing­ton legal­ized recre­ational pot in 2012, mar­i­juana was quasi-legal in Cal­i­for­nia, and not just for med­ical use. Sen­ate Bill 1449, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger in 2010, reclas­si­fied pos­ses­sion of an ounce or less from a mis­de­meanor to a max­i­mum $100 infraction—you’ll get a big­ger fine for jay­walk­ing in Los Ange­les. Indeed, many states have eased restric­tions on pot use. But with the excep­tion of Col­orado and Wash­ing­ton, whose laws dic­tate where, how, and by whom mar­i­juana may be grown, they have had lit­tle to say about the man­ner in which it is cultivated—which is chal­leng­ing to dic­tate in any case, since grow­ers who coöper­ate with state reg­u­la­tors could still be pros­e­cuted under fed­eral statutes that clas­sify pot as a Sched­ule 1 drug, the legal equiv­a­lent of LSD and heroin. So where is all this legal and semi­le­gal weed sup­posed to come from? The answer, increas­ingly, is an unreg­u­lated back­woods econ­omy, the scale of which makes Prohibition-era moon­shin­ing look quaint. To meet demand, researchers say, the acreage ded­i­cated to mar­i­juana grows in the Emer­ald Tri­an­gle has dou­bled in the past five years. Like the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, this “green rush,” as it is known locally, has brought great wealth at a great cost to the envi­ron­ment. Whether grown in bunkers lit with pollution-spewing diesel gen­er­a­tors, or doused with restricted pes­ti­cides and sown on muddy, defor­ested slopes that choke off salmon streams dur­ing the rainy sea­son, this “pol­lu­tion pot” isn’t exactly high qual­ity, or even a qual­ity high. “The cannabis indus­try right now is in sort of the same posi­tion that the meat­pack­ing indus­try was in before The Jun­gle was writ­ten by Upton Sin­clair,” says Stephen DeAn­gelo, the founder of Oakland’s Har­bor­side Health Cen­ter, a large med­ical mar­i­juana dis­pen­sary. “It sim­ply isn’t reg­u­lated, and the upshot is that nobody really knows what’s in their cannabis.” It’s not just ston­ers who are at risk. Tres­pass grows have turned up every­where from a stand of cot­ton­woods in Death Val­ley National Park to a clear­ing amid the pines in Yosemite. “I now have to spend 100 per­cent of my time work­ing on the envi­ron­men­tal impacts of mar­i­juana,” says Gabriel, who showed up at Bear Camp in military-style cargo pants and a kaf­fiyeh scarf. “I would never have envi­sioned that.” Gabriel grew up in Fresno, the son of immi­grants from Mex­ico and Iraq, at a time when the Cen­tral Val­ley city was plagued by turf wars among pot-dealing street gangs, notably the local Norteños chap­ter and their rivals, the Bull­dogs. That world did not inter­est Gabriel, who spent a lot of his free time catch­ing frogs and craw­dads on the banks of the San Joaquin River. His love of the out­doors led him to study wildlife man­age­ment at Hum­boldt State Uni­ver­sity, where he became fas­ci­nated with fish­ers, the only preda­tors besides moun­tain lions clever and tough enough to prey on por­cu­pines. The fisher, which resem­bles the love child of a fer­ret and a wolver­ine, was nearly erad­i­cated from the West by log­ging and trap­ping dur­ing the early 20th cen­tury. It still hasn’t rebounded. This year, the US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice will con­sider list­ing it as a threat­ened species. When Gabriel first began ven­tur­ing into the woods to trap and radio-collar fish­ers, he assumed that most of them were dying from bob­cat attacks, dis­ease, and cars run­ning them over. But then, in 2009, he dis­cov­ered a dead fisher deep in the Sierra National For­est that showed no signs of any of those things. A tox­i­col­ogy test indi­cated that it had ingested large quan­ti­ties of rat poi­son. Back in his lab, he tested frozen tis­sue from 58 other fisher car­casses he’d col­lected on some of California’s most remote pub­lic lands and found roden­ti­cide traces in nearly 80 per­cent of them. Rat poi­son isn’t used in national forests by any­one except mar­i­juana cul­ti­va­tors, who put it out to pro­tect their seedlings. Rodents that eat the poi­son stum­ble around for a few days before they die, mak­ing them easy prey for hun­gry fish­ers. In 2012, after Gabriel pub­lished his rat poi­son results, he was the tar­get of angry calls and mes­sages. One per­son accused him of help­ing the feds “green­wash the war on drugs.” Another made vague threats against his fam­ily and his dogs. Gabriel also received a pry­ing email, later traced by fed­eral agents to Ciu­dad Juárez, Mex­ico, solic­it­ing the loca­tions of his home, office, and field study sites. In Lost Coast Out­post and other local news sites, com­menters shared links to his home address. “Snitches end up in ditches,” one warned. Then, last month, Gabriel’s Labrador retriever, Nyxo, died after some­one fed him meat infused with De-Con rat bait. The types of threats Gabriel has received are not uncom­mon, and they have fright­ened sci­en­tists away from study­ing the envi­ron­men­tal impacts of pot farm­ing. “At my uni­ver­sity, there is nobody who will even go near it,” says Anthony Sil­vag­gio, a soci­ol­o­gist with the state university’s Hum­boldt Insti­tute for Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Mar­i­juana Research. Biol­o­gists who used to ven­ture into the wilder­ness alone to sur­vey wildlife now often pair up for pro­tec­tion. In July 2011, armed grow­ers in the Sequoia National For­est chased a fed­eral biol­o­gist through the woods for a half-hour before giv­ing up. The fol­low­ing year, researchers sur­vey­ing north­ern spot­ted owls on Hum­boldt County’s Hoopa Val­ley Indian Reser­va­tion were shot at with high-caliber rifles. Each grow­ing sea­son, a sig­nif­i­cant chunk of one des­ig­nated fisher habi­tat in the Sierra National For­est becomes inac­ces­si­ble to sci­en­tists because it’s dan­ger­ously close to ille­gal gar­dens. Gabriel won’t go near a known grow site before it’s been cleared by law enforce­ment, as Bear Camp has. Scat­tered across the hill­side, his team finds 4,200 pounds of chem­i­cal fer­til­izer, five kinds of insec­ti­cide, and three kinds of roden­ti­cide. The stash includes a restricted pes­ti­cide capa­ble of killing humans in small doses. Gabriel’s friend and col­league Mark Higley dons a gas mask and seals the can­is­ter in a garbage bag. “If it does erupt, I want every­one to be at least 20 to 30 feet away,” Gabriel warns. “It’s alu­minum phos­phide, and when it hits the air, it turns into phos­phine gas.” Breath­ing it can kill you. The Emer­ald Triangle’s pot cul­ture has changed a lot since the hip­pies drove up from San Fran­cisco in the early 1970s in search of peace, free­dom, and bliss­ful com­mu­nion with nature. At first, the back-to-the-landers grew pot pri­mar­ily for them­selves, but news that the United States was pay­ing to have Mex­i­can pot farms sprayed with paraquat, a toxic weed killer, con­vinced Amer­i­can ston­ers to seek out the hip­pie weed. Before long, Hum­boldt had become a name brand, but mar­i­juana might never have come to define the Emer­ald Tri­an­gle had the old-growth tim­ber indus­try not logged itself out of busi­ness by the mid-1990s. In 1996, when Cal­i­for­nia became the first state to legal­ize pot for med­ical use, out-of-work log­gers took advan­tage of the oppor­tu­nity. “Then you had every­body like, ‘Sure, I’ll grow some weed,’” recalls Hum­boldt State’s Sil­vag­gio. The size of the har­vest grew, helped along by post-9/11 bor­der enforce­ment, which made it harder for Mex­i­can pot to enter the coun­try. The lat­est leap in pro­duc­tion was the result of Prop. 19, California’s 2010 legal­iza­tion mea­sure; although it lost nar­rowly at the polls, the Emer­ald Triangle’s grow­ers boosted out­put in antic­i­pa­tion of hav­ing a main­stream prod­uct. Now mar­i­juana “is all we have,” Sil­vag­gio says. “Every other thing is built here to serve that econ­omy.” Drive around the Emer­ald Tri­an­gle dur­ing har­vest sea­son with the radio on, and you’ll hear ads openly pitch­ing Dutch hydro­ponic lamps, machines “for trim­ming flow­ers,” and 2,800-gallon water stor­age tanks—because “you don’t want to be the one that has to call the water truck in for mul­ti­ple water deliv­er­ies late in the sea­son.” Even main­stream busi­nesses like fur­ni­ture stores get in on the green rush with “har­vest sales.” Talk of bud-trimming par­ties and the going price per pound dom­i­nates restau­rant con­ver­sa­tions. And in back­woods ham­lets where you’d expect high unem­ploy­ment, you come across a lot of $50,000 pick­ups. As with much of the state’s agri­cul­tural indus­try, the pot trade is strat­i­fied, and much of the labor is done by undoc­u­mented farm­work­ers. The man arrested at Bear Camp con­fessed to the police that he’d trav­eled north from Michoacán, Mex­ico, to pick apples in Wash­ing­ton, but knew he could make more money tend­ing pot in Cal­i­for­nia. Indus­try observers believe that at least some of the tres­pass grows are run from south of the bor­der, but Sil­vag­gio adds that many are financed by locals. Either way, the grunt work­ers tend to be the only ones busted when the grows are raided. Although the orig­i­nal North­ern Cal­i­for­nia grow­ers saw pot cul­ti­va­tion as an exten­sion of their hip­pie lifestyles, their envi­ron­men­tal val­ues haven’t read­ily car­ried over to the next gen­er­a­tion. “They are given a free pass to become wealthy at a young age, to get what they want,” Sil­vag­gio explains. “And do you think they are going to give it up when they turn 20, with a kid in the box? They can’t get off that gravy train.” But with prices drop­ping as domes­tic sup­ply expands, “you can’t go smaller; you’ve got to go big­ger these days to make the amount of money you used to make. So what does that mean? You have to get another gen­er­a­tor. You have to take more water. You’ve got to spray some­thing because you may lose 20, 30 grand if you don’t.” Smaller grow­ers oper­at­ing on their own prop­er­ties tend to use slightly bet­ter envi­ron­men­tal prac­tices— avoid­ing roden­ti­cides, for instance—than the indus­trial grow­ers who have moved in solely to make money. Even so, Sil­vag­gio says, “we found that it’s just a tiny frac­tion of folks who are grow­ing organic.” Among the down­sides of the green rush is the strain it puts on water resources in a drought-plagued region. Scott Bauer, a biol­o­gist with the state Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife, cal­cu­lates that irri­ga­tion for cannabis farms has sucked up all of the water that would ordi­nar­ily keep local salmon streams run­ning through the dry sea­son. Mar­i­juana cul­ti­va­tion, he believes, “is a big rea­son why” at least 24 salmon and steel­head streams stopped flow­ing last sum­mer. “I would con­sider it prob­a­bly the No. 1 threat” to salmon in the area, he told me. “We are spend­ing mil­lions of dol­lars on restor­ing streams. We are invest­ing all this money in remov­ing roads and try­ing to con­tain sed­i­ment and fix­ing fish path bar­ri­ers, but with­out water there’s no fish.” At Bear Camp, Gabriel leads me to a steep slope where the grow­ers have plugged a fresh­wa­ter spring with a makeshift dam of logs and tarps, one of 17 water diver­sions found at the site. Where moisture-loving ferns and horse­tails should be flour­ish­ing, a plas­tic pipe leads down­hill to a 1,000-gallon reser­voir feed­ing a vast irri­ga­tion net­work. Gabriel unkinks a hose to release an arc of water from a sprin­kler. National Guard troops enlisted to help out have already yanked the cannabis plants here, leav­ing behind a hill­side of gir­dled white oaks and bare soil. “When we have a two-to-four-inch rain, this will just be a mud river,” Gabriel says. Sed­i­ment laced with pes­ti­cides and other chem­i­cals will find its way into the salmon stream below. We hike down to a clear­ing where a heli­copter is pulling out sling loads of irri­ga­tion pip­ing. “Look at this!” Gabriel shouts after plung­ing into a thicket to help the sol­diers rip out another dam. “Insect killer right in the mid­dle of it!” He and his col­leagues have seen much worse. At a grow site in July, he found a fisher that had died from eat­ing one of many poi­soned hot dogs strung around the site on a trot­line. A state game war­den raid­ing a grow in 2011 dis­cov­ered a black bear and her cubs con­vuls­ing on the ground, hav­ing eaten into a stash of pes­ti­cides. Two threat­ened north­ern spot­ted owls, the species once at the cen­ter of a bit­ter fight between log­gers and envi­ron­men­tal­ists, tested pos­i­tive for roden­ti­cides in Gabriel’s lab; he’s now look­ing into whether tox­ins from grow sites could be imped­ing that species’ recov­ery as well. “When there is no ade­quate reg­u­la­tory frame­work,” Sil­vag­gio warns, “you are going to have nature tak­ing a hit.” Most grow­ers just want to be left alone, but the small minor­ity who are polit­i­cally out­spo­ken tend to favor reg­u­la­tion. Kristin Nevedal chairs the Emer­ald Grow­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, the triangle’s mar­i­juana trade group. The coau­thor of an ecofriendly pot-farming guide, she often con­sults with state and local law­mak­ers about how to make the indus­try more respon­si­ble. “Pro­hi­bi­tion hasn’t curbed the desire for cannabis,” she says. “So we really need to look at chang­ing our pol­icy and start­ing to treat it like agri­cul­ture, so we can man­age it.” One of the most seri­ous efforts on that front was a sys­tem put in place by Men­do­cino County, which as of 2010 allowed the cul­ti­va­tion of up to 99 plants, pro­vided grow­ers reg­is­tered and tagged each one with zip ties pur­chased from the county. Sheriff’s deputies mon­i­tored the grow sites and checked that they com­plied with envi­ron­men­tal laws. “That pro­gram was in a lot of ways fab­u­lous,” Nevedal recalls. Almost 100 grow­ers par­tic­i­pated, but the pro­gram was shut down in early 2012, after fed­eral agents raided one of the grows and US Attor­ney Melinda Haag hinted that she might just take the county to court. Later that year, a fed­eral grand jury sub­poe­naed the county’s zip tie records. Since then, efforts to reg­u­late pot farm­ing have mostly shifted to the state level. In Col­orado, pot ven­dors are required to list on their pack­ag­ing all the farm chem­i­cals used to pro­duce their prod­ucts, and the state recently imple­mented a “seed to sale” track­ing sys­tem. Most Col­oradans grow indoors due to the cli­mate, which reduces pes­ti­cide use and makes it eas­ier to keep pot off the black mar­ket, but it’s highly energy inten­sive. In the jour­nal Energy Pol­icy, researcher Evan Mills esti­mated that indoor grows suck up enough elec­tric­ity to sup­ply 1.7 mil­lion homes—in Cal­i­for­nia, they account for a whop­ping 9 per­cent of house­hold energy use. The newly minted reg­u­la­tions for Wash­ing­ton state allow out­door grows so long as they are well fenced and out­fit­ted with secu­rity cam­eras and an alarm sys­tem. In the next few years, new legal­iza­tion mea­sures appear des­tined for the bal­lot in Cal­i­for­nia, Alaska, and Ore­gon. But while it may help cre­ate a mar­ket for respon­si­bly grown cannabis, legal­iz­ing pot in a few states won’t wipe out the black mar­ket, with its steep envi­ron­men­tal toll. There’s sim­ply too much money to be made ship­ping weed to New York­ers at $3,600 per pound, and too few cops to find all the grows and rip them out. “The tres­pass grows are really an issue because of pro­hi­bi­tion,” says Gary Hughes, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Infor­ma­tion Cen­ter, a 37-year-old Emer­ald Tri­an­gle envi­ron­men­tal group that cut its teeth fight­ing the log­ging indus­try. “It is not the grow­ers who are a dis­ease. They are just a symp­tom. The real dis­ease is the failed drug war.” Yet with­out the drug war, the region’s pot sec­tor might fade into obliv­ion. Take away the threat of fed­eral raids, and to some extent pot becomes just another row crop, grown en masse wher­ever it’s cheap­est. “A shift in cul­ti­va­tion to the Cen­tral Val­ley is def­i­nitely pos­si­ble,” Hughes acknowl­edges. There will likely still be a niche for the Emer­ald Tri­an­gle grow­ers who started it all, Nevedal believes, just as there has been for craft whiskey dis­til­leries in post-Prohibition Ken­tucky. Grow­ing really good weed is sim­ply too much work and too much strain on the envi­ron­ment to make sense on an indus­trial scale. As it hap­pens, Nevedal spec­u­lates, the Emer­ald Tri­an­gle might just end up where it started, pro­vid­ing arti­sanal dank for a high-end mar­ket. “The future,” she says, “is the small fam­ily farm.” Josh Harkin­son is a staff reporter at Mother Jones. Source: Mother Jones (US) Author: Josh Harkin­son Pub­lished: March/April 2014 Issue Copy­right: 2014 Foun­da­tion for National Progress Web­site: http://​moth​er​jones​.com/ Con­tact: backtalk@​motherjones.​com

68dd43d592132372.jpg 150x112 The Landscape Scarring Reality of Pot Farming

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The Landscape-Scarring Real­ity of Pot Farming

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