Environmental Damager Lingers After Pot Plants Removed from National Forest

Trash, fertilizers, pesticides, and propane containers littered the bear-ravaged remains of the marijuana plantations central camp before the cleanup operation on Wednesday, November 6. Volunteers removed more than 8,000 pounds of trash. / Photo by Kristan Korns, Two Rivers Tribune

By KRISTAN KORNS, Two Rivers Tribune

Twenty miles from Hyampom, near the border of the Six Rivers National Forest and the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, a small crew of pot growers carved out a 50-acre garden.

The garden in the hills above Bear Creek was raided and most of the 5,000 to 6,000 marijuana plants were uprooted and destroyed in August, but the growers’ stockpile of toxic chemicals and contaminated homemade reservoirs sat abandoned until last week.

Craig Thompson, a research wildlife ecologist, was at the site to help with cleanup on Wednesday, October 6, along with law enforcement officers from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the California National Guard’s Joint Counterdrug Task Force, and members of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew.

“If you look at the malathion bottles scattered around, you’ll see they all have bite and chew marks on them,” Thompson said. “We picked up the malathion bottles, and it just poured out onto the ground through the bear bite marks.”

Malathion, an insecticide, was one of more than a half-dozen toxic chemicals along with more than more than 4,100 pounds of soluble fertilizers found at the site by the cleanup crews.

John Heil III, a regional press officer with the USFS, said, “This is one of the worst sites environmentally. We found weevil-cide here, which is highly toxic, and there are major environmental concerns because this is habitat for the Pacific fisher and the spotted owl.”

Daryl Rush, the assistant special agent in charge of the operation, said that law enforcement officers with the USFS raided sites in the same general area in previous years at least twice, but weren’t able to catch anyone there before this year.

“In 2007, they pulled 130,000 plants that took up this whole side of the mountain,” Rush said. “This time we pulled up between 5,000 and 6,000 plants and one suspect was arrested.”

The suspect, a man from the Mexican state of Michoacán who was found armed with a 9mm pistol, was indicted in U.S. federal court in August.

Heil said, “We immediately remove the plants so they can’t harvest them, and the cleanup crews arrive as soon as we can get to it.”

There was a delay of over two months because of budget limitations and the huge number of marijuana plantations discovered each year. In 2009, over 3.5 million marijuana plants were seized in California.

Rush said, “When I first started doing drug eradication, we’d find 50 or 60 plants in a plot. Now we find thousands, and it’s going up.”

“We’ve tracked gardens back to leaders of organized groups,” Rush said. “I’ve been in camps where there’ve been 20 to 30 people in the area pruning plants all day long.”

Workers are brought in to plant and care for the marijuana plants, along with more people outside who bring in supplies for the planters, and leaders who direct the operation.

At the site near Hyampom, over 5,000 plants were placed in three separate garden areas surrounding a central camp. Four springs were tapped, twelve different dams were built, and five reservoirs holding more than 7,500 gallons of water were constructed to provide steady water for the plants.

Mourad Gabriel, a UC Davis researcher and Director of the Integral Ecology Research Center (IERC), said, “All of these water cisterns had opened bags of fertilizer in them, so you have high-nitrate fertilizer going into the streams.”

“When they tap into these watersheds, they’re devastating the area,” Gabriel said.

The cool water from the springs in the grow site would normally flow downhill into Bear Creek, eventually reaching the south Fork of the Trinity River and then the main branch of the Trinity River.

Because of the water diversion, the flows that eventually reach the Trinity are warm and loaded with fertilizers and pesticides which cause algae blooms in the river and animal deaths throughout the watershed.

Rich Fleming, the executive director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew, has helped clean up over 1700 marijuana grow sites over the last eight years.

“They take the water out of the watershed and dump it on the plants, and the watershed dies,” Fleming said. “The fertilizers and the rodenticides go into the water and it soaks into the ground.”

“Their whole thing is to get as much plant as quickly as they can, so they’re not worrying about doing it cleanly or organically – they’ll use as much fertilizer and as much pesticide as they can,” Fleming said.

Marijuana growers on other sites were found intentionally poisoning animals with anticoagulant rodenticides – poisons that make small animals like rats bleed out and die.

Mark Higley, a wildlife biologist with Hoopa Tribal Forestry, said, “Hot dogs were poisoned and hung on hooks to kill animals that were tearing up their pipes.”

The poisoned animals are then eaten by other animals, including endangered Pacific fishers and spotted owls, who are also poisoned and die.

Higley was at the site outside Hyampom as a volunteer helping with the cleanup. He breathed through a respirator and carefully handled a container of an unusually deadly chemical found in the abandoned camp.

“It’s weevil-cide. It’s used in silos to keep out the weevils, but it creates poisonous gas when mixed with moisture,” Higley said.

Several law enforcement officers nearby shook their heads. “If they’d used that here, they would have all died.”

The volunteers carefully gathered and bagged all of the trash, separating any chemicals into a separate pile for disposal. They also tore out all of the piping and dismantled the camp and all of its improvements.

Ryan Heidt, a volunteer from Round Valley, said, “We recycle all the pipe and dispose of all the trash.”

By the end of the day, Fleming, Heidt, and the other volunteers bagged and disposed of over 8,000 pounds of trash from the site.

“This is just a part of what we do. Most of our crews just put in trails,” Heidt said. “I started helping with cleanups near Round Valley, because that’s where my drinking water comes from.”

Merv George Jr., Deputy Forest Supervisor for the Six Rivers National Forest, said, “The environmental impact is pretty severe for all species in the area, and for those of us who want to keep more animals off the endangered species list, this is pretty bad.”

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