Tony Magarrell isn’t very relaxed for someone who just spent a week in the lush backcountry canyons of Lassen National Forest, 165 miles northwest of Reno.
Magarrell, a special agent for the U.S. Forest Service, wasn’t there to enjoy roaring waterfalls or abundant wildlife. He was cleaning up an illicit marijuana operation, a job that gives him a front-row seat to environmental wreckage most people will never see, reported the Reno Gazette-Journal.
“This site has pretty much taken over the whole drainage out here,” said Magarrell of the 60-acre site that yielded about 6,000 pounds of trash, much of it in the form of hazardous chemicals. “It’s been a long week.”
The bags of trash hauled out by helicopter provided evidence of the damage illicit grows can do to the environment. But the damage goes far beyond the trash left behind.
Environmental damage from the grow sites includes widespread sickness and death among wildlife, including threatened and endangered species.
On U.S. Forest Service land in California alone, authorities have identified more than 400 sites in the past two years with an estimated 1.7 million plants. Although hundreds of sites are identified, only a fraction of them are actually remediated. The number of cleanups fluctuates with availability of personnel and funding, Magarrell said.
Law enforcement officials report frequent instances of wildlife poaching by people working at the sites. Even more damaging than poaching is the mass amounts of poison associated with grow sites. That poison is killing wildlife at the site and being carried away by animals that consume it and die elsewhere.
Magarrell suspects the Burney site was the work of large drug trafficking operators from Mexico, who law enforcement believe are behind most major grows, and the environmental damage they cause.
Similar grow sites have been found in Nevada, although they are smaller and much fewer in number. In recent years, officials have found grows with trash, fertilizer and rat poison in the Spring Mountain National Forest Recreation Area near Las Vegas, the Austin Tonopah Ranger District in central Nevada and the Ely Ranger District in White Pine County.
Both California and Nevada voters have recently approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession and issue licenses for marijuana businesses. But it’s too soon to tell if that will affect illicit grows in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere. That’s because the vast majority of what’s grown illicitly is sold through black market channels, which still exist because most states and the federal government still consider marijuana to be illegal.
In 2014, Chris Boehm, assistant director of law enforcement and investigations for the Forest Service, estimated drug trafficking organizations are operating in 72 national forests in 22 states.
“It is a national issue, it is not a California issue,” Magarrell said.
Research quantifies environmental damage
The site near Burney, which Magarrell said was typical for illicit grows, contained tons of evidence of environmental damage.
Law enforcement officials identified three camps each with its own dump sites, 18 miles of pipe diverting water from a creek, 11,360 pounds of trash, 1,250 pounds of fertilizer and a host of toxic chemicals.
The list included: insecticides such as Lorsban 480 EM, Sevin carbaryl and Malathion, the rat poison Bromethalin, Acetylcholinesterase inhibitor which can be used as a pesticide and plant hormone concentrate Hormoviton Calor.
The growers use the chemicals for several purposes. Insecticides and herbicides can be used to prevent weeds and insects from damaging the plants, and the fertilizers promote growth.
Rat poison is often spread around the sites in copious amounts to kill everything from rodents to deer that might damage the plants.
The poison is particularly destructive because it often has a pleasant taste to attract animals, which encourages them to eat it.
When other animals, such as owls, mountain lions or bears, scavenge the contaminated carcasses, they can become sick as well.
“A deer is not going to eat a mouse, but if you have 90 pounds of peanut-butter-flavored rodenticide out there, (the deer) just walks in and starts eating the pellets,” said Mourad Gabriel, executive director and senior ecologist at Integral Ecology Research Center and one of the few researchers dedicated to studying ecological impact of illicit grow sites. “It is mimicking the potential legacy effects that other chemicals like DDT have done with wildlife.”
Gabriel, along with co-researcher Greta Wengert, is considered a leading researcher in the field thanks to his efforts to survey grow sites and document the spread of environmental damage.
His research shows the damage is widespread and affects species and habitat throughout the Sierra Nevada, where there are thought to be hundreds, or even thousands, of illicit grow sites.
Gabriel’s most prominent research found rat poison contamination in 85 percent of fisher carcasses tested for all of California. Fishers are forest-dwelling animals related to wolverines, minks and otters.
Gabriel’s research suggests, “contamination is widespread within the fisher’s range in California, which encompasses mostly public forest and park lands.”
The effects go beyond fishers. Gabriel has detected contamination in 67 percent of spotted owls tested.
And he’s documented contamination in black-tailed deer, bears, fox and upland game birds.
One trail camera photo from a grow site in a prime hunting zone captured a trophy buck browsing in a pile of refuse and poison at a grow site.
“This is a deer people would wait a lifetime to hunt,” Gabriel said. “Yet we have these folks who are in there illegally poaching them and illegally poisoning them.”
Important, but dangerous, work
The research is important because it quantifies environmental damage from illicit grows, an overlooked problem.
Recent statewide votes in California and Nevada in favor of relaxing anti-marijuana statutes show much of the public is ambivalent about prohibition.
Environmental damage, however, is a separate issue. Much of the public cares deeply about protecting wildlife and public land and the people who work on cleaning up grow sites want people to know about the damage.
“I believe the research that Mourad and Greta are doing should have already rattled the cages of every environmentalist, every hunter, anybody who gives a damn,” said Kary Schlick, a Forest Service wildlife biologist who has worked on spotted owl research.
The notion of prosecuting growers, when they’re caught, for environment-related offenses in addition to drug offenses is gaining steam among some prosecutors.
Karen Escobar, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California in Fresno, cited cases in which prosecutors highlighted environmental damage as a key component in making cases against growers.
In one case a grower was sentenced for producing plants in the Canebrake Ecological Reserve in Kern County.
In the statement announcing the guilty plea prosecutors highlighted the environmental and cultural sensitivity of the area above the number of plants.
“It was first inhabited in about 1000 B.C. by the Tubatulabel culture and is currently home to numerous rare and protected plants and animals, including the federally protected golden and bald eagles and peregrine falcon, the federally threatened California red-legged frog and Valley elderberry longhorn beetle, and the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher,” they wrote in the statement.
In another statement announcing a 10-year sentence against a grower they highlighted the grower’s, “involvement in a toxic marijuana cultivation operation in the Greenhorn Creek area of the Sequoia National Forest.”
Escobar credited the work of Gabriel and other researchers for providing much needed data in the effort to enhance sentences for environmental offenses related to illicit grows.
When Boehm described the problem to the sentencing commission he said armed guards are a threat to the safety of employees and visitors and cultivation techniques damage the environment.
“It is unknown how many tons of fertilizers, gallons of toxic liquids, or pounds of solid poisons are applied and used during the cultivation process on our public lands,” he testified. “However, we do know that the impacts are significant and far reaching.”
Despite the importance of data to efforts to eradicate damage from grows research into the problem is still limited.
That’s due in part to the fact it can be dangerous to researchers.
Gabriel has been subjected to threats, including the poisoning of his dog with rat poison in 2014. Authorities in Humboldt County, Calif., offered a $20,000 reward but did not identify any suspects.
And Schlick said she’s had to pull spotted owl researchers from the field in Northern California because they were encountering signs of dangerous cartel activity.
“What does it mean to the environment? We are diminishing our survey efforts and possibly not surveying anymore because the risk is too great,” Schlick said. “The quality of the data is at risk.”