January 2, 2013

In Focus: The problem with pot

The marijuana boom wreaks havoc on fragile habitats and borders on terrorism to the environment, officials say.

By JOE MOZINGO Los Angeles Times

(Continued from page 1)

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Aaron Pole, a wildlife technician with the Hoopa Tribal Forestry, walks in the woods where marijuana growers left piles of trash after vacating the area on the Hoopa Indian Reservation in California.

Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/MCT

In June, Bauer and other agency scientists accompanied game wardens as they executed six search warrants on growers illegally sucking water from tributaries of the Trinity River. At one, he came upon a group of 20-somethings with Michigan license plates on their vehicles, camping next to 400 plants. He followed an irrigation line up to a creek, where the growers had dug a pond and lined it with plastic.

"I started talking to this guy, and he says he used to be an Earth First! tree-sitter, saving the trees," Bauer said. "I told him everything he was doing here negates everything he did as an environmentalist."

The man was a small-timer in this new gold rush. As marijuana floods the market and prices drop, many farmers are cultivating ever bigger crops to make a profit. They now cut huge clearings for industrial-scale greenhouses. With no permits or provisions for runoff, the operations dump tons of silt into the streams during the rainy season.

Every grow has its own unique footprint. Urban indoor growers might not pollute a river, but they guzzle energy. A study in the journal Energy Policy calculated that indoor marijuana cultivation could be responsible for 9 percent of California's household electricity use. Others producers, like the Mexican drug trafficking groups who set up giant grows on public lands right next to mountain streams, spread toxins far and wide and steal water to run oscillating sprinkler systems.

But it's not just the big criminal groups skirting the rules. Tony LaBanca, senior environmental scientist at Fish and Game in Eureka, said less than 1 percent of marijuana growers get the permits required to take water from a creek, and those who do usually do it after an enforcement action.

On a recent day, Higley, the wildlife biologist, took a reporter and photographer to some of the damage he finds in the most remote mountains. With his colleague Aaron Pole at the wheel, Higley headed north up the Bigfoot Highway and then up a dirt logging road 13 miles into the snow-peaked Trinities.

They were going to a grow that the sheriff had raided by helicopter in August. Deputies cut down 26,600 plants.

They parked the truck and started threading down precipitous slopes, through thick wet brush and forest.

Crossing a 2-foot-wide creek, they came across a black irrigation line. Vague footpaths emerged, empty Coors cans began glinting in the mud, more water pipes spidered out.

After another 40 minutes, they reached a clearing in the bottom of the canyon -- a field of stumps, holes of dark potting soil and hacked-down stalks of marijuana. Dead gray brush and logs ringed the site. A few heavily pruned trees were left standing, to help mask the marijuana grove from the air.

Deputies had severed the irrigation lines during the August raid, but when Higley returned in September to study the environmental impact, some of the line had been reconnected to sprinklers and plants had re-sprouted. He saw a wet bar of soap on an upturned bucket and realized workers were hiding.

At a dump pile next to the creek, he found propane tanks, rat poison, empty bags of Grow More fertilizer, instant noodles and tortillas.

A lot of the trash had been removed during the sheriff's eradication -- dozens of empty bags accounting for 2,700 pounds of fertilizer and boxes for 10 pounds of d-CON, as well as two poached deer carcasses and the remains of a state-protected ringtailed cat.

"It wouldn't matter if they were growing tomatoes, corn and squash," he said. "It's trespassing, it's illegal and it borders on terrorism to the environment."


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