Illegal marijuana operations harm resources, safety


Issue Date: March 20, 2013
By Christine Souza
Illegal marijuana grows cause significant environmental degradation in California, a Department of Fish and Wildlife official says.
Photos courtesy of Lt. John Nores Jr.
Marijuana growers live in camps for months to man the illegal operations and leave trash behind once the marijuana is harvested.
Photos courtesy of Lt. John Nores Jr.

For years, farmers and ranchers living in the "Emerald Triangle" of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties have dealt with trespassers who cultivate marijuana on properties they own, lease or manage. In the last decade, however, these "trespass grows" have become more predominant on resource and agricultural lands throughout California and are larger in size, result in significant environmental damage, and endanger public safety.

Speaking to a packed room of farmers and ranchers, Mendocino County Farm Bureau First Vice President Frost Pauli moderated a session on trespass marijuana grows at the 2013 California Farm Bureau Federation Leaders Conference held last week in Sacramento.

"It is important that as Farm Bureau members, we recognize this is not limited to Northern California," Pauli said. "There are many impacts of marijuana grows and these include to our own personal safety, to the productivity of our businesses and to the environment."

Pauli pointed out that the Mendocino County Farm Bureau introduced new Farm Bureau policy language on trespass marijuana grows at the 2012 CFBF Annual Meeting that was adopted by the House of Delegates. The policy states that the landowner or managing agency of a property should be notified by law enforcement agencies when agencies are aware of a trespass marijuana grow on private agricultural or resource properties or public lands. The policy adds that all environmentally hazardous infrastructure, refuse and toxic substances should be removed in a timely manner, and that costs should not be the responsibility of the landowner.

At the Leaders Conference, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Lt. John Nores Jr. educated members about the environmental degradation and public safety hazards caused by marijuana grows on private and public lands. Early in his career, Nores said, he thought he would be catching poachers and writing fishing tickets. Yet, he said that 40 percent of his job now involves dealing with illegal marijuana cultivation sites on private and public lands.

"The last thing I thought I'd be doing is chasing drug traffickers, armed cartel men growing marijuana in our forests and on our farmland," Nores said. "It is not only a public safety issue; it's become our biggest wildlife crime in the state of California. It is destroying the most wildlife."

Those cultivating marijuana illegally on resource lands, Nores said, use the same operational template in terms of growing materials, infrastructure and water supply diversions. The growers are armed, very organized and pose a great threat to public safety, he said.

Illegal marijuana growers, Nores said, are partial to California and the Western states due to the Mediterranean climate that allows them to grow plants almost year-round. The forested grow sites are usually manned by many people, who build camps where they can live while growing and watching the crop. Growers typically bring fertilizers and pesticides that are banned for use in the U.S. and tap into a nearby water supply to water their plants, Nores said.

"This is a universal problem because of public safety and because of environmental damage. Nobody wants to drink battery acid-laden water and nobody wants their kids and grandkids not to know what a steelhead trout or a black-tailed deer looks like," Nores added.

Speakers at the session said the trespass marijuana grows cause environmental damage including the clearing of native plants, which removes habitat for wildlife species; erosion and sedimentation; and waterway and fisheries impacts. Humans living in the camps leave waste and are known, Nores said, for killing wildlife for food.

"We're seeing the biggest wildlife loss because there are so many grows in California," Nores said. "Forty-two percent of all environmental habitat destruction, water pollution and streambed alteration cases were made as a result of marijuana operations. That's telling you that it is widespread and it's becoming a huge environmental issue."

Madeleine Melo of the Jere Melo Foundation in Fort Bragg addressed the issue of marijuana grows and public safety. Jere Melo, a forester, was murdered in 2011 while investigating an illegal marijuana grow. After her husband was killed, Madeleine Melo and concerned citizens formed the foundation to stop illegal marijuana cultivation on public and private lands, and help educate the public.

"After he was murdered, a group of citizens and I said, 'We've had enough,'" Melo said. "We need a public will to find a solution to this problem. We need to develop a plan and stop this illegal trespass for personal gain."

Sarah Moffat, a field representative for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., warned farmers and ranchers that marijuana cultivation on public lands has now shifted and "it's now on your plate" as a result of Proposition 215, the medical marijuana initiative that passed in 1996, allowing marijuana for medical uses (see story). However, Moffat said, it remains illegal to cultivate and distribute marijuana under federal law, and some California counties are passing ordinances to limit the number of plants grown in the jurisdiction of the county.

"The Kern County Board of Supervisors just passed an ordinance that you cannot grow more than 20 plants under Prop. 215. If you do, you will be shut down and charged almost $1,000 daily," said Moffat, who recommended that farmers having problems with marijuana growers contact the county board of supervisors. "It has almost eliminated their grow problem."

To learn more about the Jere Melo Foundation, go to www.jeremelo.org.

Related story: Marijuana operations expand onto Central Valley farmland

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.