Trespass Marijuana Plantations Wreak Havoc in Trinity Alps Wilderness

Army, National Guard and other law enforcement officers prepare to load the helicopter with irrigation line, garbage and a few remnant marijuana plants./Photos by Allie Hostler, Two Rivers Tribune

Army, National Guard and other law enforcement officers prepare to load the helicopter with irrigation line, garbage and a few remnant marijuana plants./Photos by Allie Hostler, Two Rivers Tribune

Large-Scale Grow Operations Threaten Endangered Species and Public Safety

By ALLIE HOSTLER, Two Rivers Tribune

Deer hunters gawked at the traffic on Big French Creek Road early last Thursday morning as countless green game warden trucks, U.S. Forest Service trucks and military vehicles caravan 12 miles up to a trail used to access an illegal marijuana grow.

One deer hunter had parked his fifth wheel near the access point where ‘Operation Cleanup’ set up an incident command post.

“I’ve hunted here before,” he said. “There was always something strange about this place—traffic at 3 am and weird noises and activity. I think I’ll go over a ridge to Hobo Gulch next time.”

The access point was one of several used by an alleged international drug trafficking organization to grow thousands of marijuana plants. At this site, 2,800 plants were eradicated two months ago.

When officers arrived, after hiking miles in through trail-less wilderness area, two male suspects fled the scene. Officers tried to catch them, but the suspects escaped.

Operation Cleanup—more formally titled Science with Solutions: Documentation, remediation and monitoring of the ecological impacts of marijuana cultivation on endangered species within

California’s public and Tribal Lands—is a collaboration amongst several government agencies, scientists and volunteers.

The site visited Thursday, was one of seven cleaned up within a week. And there are hundreds more in the area.

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The sites encompass habitat of the federally endangered coho salmon, federally threatened northern spotted owl and the Pacific fisher, which was recently proposed for listing as federally threatened. Scientific data conclusively proves how pollution from illegal marijuana cultivation has further degraded habitat quality for each species and how bioaccumulating rodenticides, common to illegal cultivation sites, continue to negatively affect the northern spotted owl and Pacific fisher.

“It’s been an eye opening experience,” Lieutenant Paul Gaske, a warden with California Department of Fish and Wildlife said. “I really didn’t realize how much damage these grows are causing in our forests.”

Gaske works closely with a team of scientists, namely Dr. Mourad Gabriel, whose research on the impact of trespass marijuana growing operations on threatened and endangered species has paved the way for aggressive cleanup efforts and unprecedented collaboration of more than 12 government and non-governmental agencies and organizations.

Gabriel, whose family dog was believed to be poisoned in February with rat poison in retaliation for his research, said the week-long cleanup effort tallied about 104 pounds of rodenticide, 560 gallons of insecticide and 8,188 pounds of fertilizer. To make matters worse, 68 ounces of concentrated carbofuran, a substance banned in the U.S., was located. At one of the sites a dead bear was found next to a carbofuran bucket that had been punctured by a bear tooth. That bear was poisoned. Another dead bear had been shot in the head along with two deer.

Rodenticides are used to kill any thirsty critters that might chew holes in water lines. The water lines are gravity fed from man-made cisterns. At the grow site visited on Thursday, a pit, fed by a nearby spring, was dug above the grow. The pit, about four-and-a-half feet deep, held 7,800 gallons of water. A few homemade funnels made from yellow tin El Pato tomato sauce cans, some pipe and window screen mesh served as spigots to thousands of feet of half-inch line and even more spaghetti line. Out of all seven sites, more than eight miles of irrigation line was removed.

Dr. Mourad Gabriel stands in a manmade pit used as a holding tank for about 7,800 gallons of water. The pit was fed by a nearby spring and small, homemade funnels were used to plumb the water into thousands of feet of irrigation line. Out of the seven sites cleaned last week, more than 8 miles of irrigation line was removed.

Dr. Mourad Gabriel stands in a manmade pit used as a holding tank for about 7,800 gallons of water. The pit was fed by a nearby spring and small, homemade funnels were used to plumb the water into thousands of feet of irrigation line. Out of the seven sites cleaned last week, more than 8 miles of irrigation line was removed.

“3.4 million gallons of water is being diverted for this grow site,” Gabriel said. “And about 67.5 million gallons from the sites we’ve cleaned this week. That’s a lot of water we could have used in the watershed for fish.”

The group’s goal was not only to return the site to its original pristine condition, but to gather more scientific data to further quantify the environmental impacts of trespass marijuana operations.

Mark Higley, a wildlife biologist with the Hoopa Valley Tribe, took a week off of work to help with the cleanup effort. Higley is also a lead scientist on Pacific fisher research and led a barred owl removal operation on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation.

“Of the 72 barred owls removed, 60 percent tested positive for rodenticides,” Higley said. Barred owls eat the same prey as spotted owls meaning they are likely suffering from the same staggering statistic.

And the garbage. The workers clearly lived on site for several months. Garbage littered the hillside and filled a nearby pit. Human waste was also present.

“Don’t walk over there,” Gabriel said as he pointed to a nearby log that served as a boundary. “That’s the bathroom.”

Within 10 minutes of the group’s arrival the Air National Guard dropped six nets from a HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter to be filled and later picked up. After about two hours all of the waste was packed and prepared for takeoff. Two helicopter trips later, the group was hiking out. Operation Cleanup complete.

A HH-60G Pave Hawk made two trips carrying thousands of pounds of garbage and other waste from the grow site.

A HH-60G Pave Hawk made two trips carrying thousands of pounds of garbage and other waste from the grow site.

“We have law enforcement helping and using volunteers, we can get a huge amount of work complete,” Rick Fleming, Executive Director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew said. “It’s important to get the public helping. We’ve been doing this for 10 years and we finally have an operation that can work together and get a huge amount done in a short amount of time.”

The following agencies were instrumental in completing the cleanup operation: California Department of Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement Division and Wildlife Investigations Laboratory, U.S. Forest Service, Army and Air National guard, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, Integral Ecology Research Center, The Watershed Center, Trinity Count Resource Conservation District, Redwood Community Action Agency, Northcoast Environmental Center, Weaverville Volunteer Fire Department and the Environmental Reclamation Team of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew.

Logistics and financial support was contributed by the above-mentioned groups. Funding for the scientific documentation and reclamation of trespass marijuana grow sites was provided through a Section 6 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

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