- Law enforcement can’t keep up with drug traffickers growing marijuana in national forests, who poison wildlife, siphon water, and risk wildfire.
LAKE ELSINORE, CALIF. — After a two-and-a-half-mile trek through thick brush, Mourad Gabriel stepped into a small clearing. A month earlier, this half-acre swath of the Cleveland National Forest, nearly invisible from the air, had been an illegal marijuana grow worth more than an estimated $1.2 million. The Forest Service’s law enforcement officers had hacked down the plants, but Gabriel and his team were there to cart out nearly 3,000 pounds of trash, and to clean up something else the drug traffickers left behind: poison.
Gabriel, a regional wildlife ecologist for the Forest Service, spooned swabs of pesticide into a military-grade testing device to identify chemicals used by illicit farmers, which kill the forest’s wildlife. “We had a dead bear,” he said, recalling a past bust, “a turkey vulture that was dead consuming that bear, and then another turkey vulture that was dead consuming that turkey vulture and that bear.”
“We call it ‘The circle of death.’”
But another looming danger to animals — and to the human residents of one of the most populous areas in America — is fire. Just over the mountains from this grow is the sprawl of greater Los Angeles and its 19 million people. Advocates estimate California’s national forests, four of which ring the L.A. basin, are home to 80 to 85 percent of the nation’s illegal marijuana grows on public land. Every time traffickers start a grow on California’s drought-stricken federal forests, they put millions of people at risk. They use scarce water and sometimes set bone-dry woodlands ablaze. At least 13 wildfires in the past dozen years have been linked to grows.
The Forest Service has long struggled to keep up — the agency has roughly one law enforcement officer for every 300,000 acres of forest — but since the pandemic started, it’s gotten even harder.
In the past two years alone, grow operations in California have rerouted millions of gallons of water, caused a 125,000-acre wildfire in Big Sur, and helped add at least one species to the endangered list.
“This is an abuse of the natural resources and the land that we as an agency are stewarding for the public,” said Gabriel.
The marijuana cultivation season coincides with the peak of wildfire season, diverting officers who would be targeting the grows into investigating the blazes, supporting firefighters and evacuating civilians.
But sometimes those missions overlap. Last year’s 125,000-acre Dolan Fire was started by a marijuana grower in the Los Padres National Forest.
“It burned through an iconic international landscape — Big Sur. It killed 11 endangered condors,” said Rich McIntyre, director of the Cannabis Removal on Public Lands Project, or the CROP Project, a coalition advocating for more resources to reclaim grow sites and catch growers. “It overran firefighters. I mean, it’s just a nightmare.”
Because marijuana cultivators live at their grow sites for months at a time, they introduce hazards like cigarettes, open-flame stoves, and wood fires to highly combustible forestland. The CROP Project has identified at least 13 wildfires across California in the past 12 years caused by people associated with grow sites. NBC News was able to independently document half a dozen of them. From a 12,000-acre fire in 2014 caused by sparks from the tailpipe of a vehicle driving to a grow site to a much larger conflagration in 2009, fires associated with illegal grows have burned at least 275,000 acres across California.
The Forest Service estimates the true toll is far higher, as wildfire origin can be difficult to investigate and confirm. https://iframe.nbcnews.com/r8OOtEw?_showcaption=true&app=1
Many of the pesticides that drug traffickers use, meanwhile, are so poisonous they’ve been outlawed in the U.S. for decades.
“These are some of the most toxic chemicals you could ever use on crops,” said Greta Wengert, executive director of the Integral Ecology Research Center, a nonprofit that studies the impact of grow sites on the environment and assists the Forest Service in its clean-up efforts.
Some of the biggest threats are the pesticides and rodenticides that growers spread to poison animals that threaten their plants or campsites.
The chemicals are so toxic, Wengert said, and used in such high concentrations, that a number of officers and clean-up workers have been hospitalized for exposure.by TaboolaSponsored StoriesWORK FROM HOME | SEARCH ADSDo You Speak English? Work a USA job from home in BangladeshSEARCH ONLINE JOBSOnline Jobs in the USA May Pay Barishal Sadar Residents More Than You Think
“You take a little bit of carbofuran here: couple drops, mix it with some tuna fish, put it on the edge of your grow, an animal comes in, eats it, and dies within two minutes,” said Wengert. “There’s your poison bomb, right there.”
That’s especially problematic because IERC’s research has shown how these deadly, illegal chemicals work their way up the food chain, as animals feed on each other. “It’s passed on again and again,” Wengert said.
The Cleveland National Forest site is home to both the endangered Arroyo Toad and endangered California condor. But Wengert is also concerned about how these chemicals might be ingested by people — whether in the marijuana they consume or from run-off into water supplies. Via snowmelt and other sources, national forests provide 50 percent of the state’s water. The Cleveland Forest site sits in a watershed that runs directly into the water supply of San Juan Capistrano, a city of 36,000.
Wengert’s group is studying downstream exposure, and in several cases, has confirmed the presence of toxic chemicals in waterways immediately downstream of grow sites.
“The next significant precipitation event is just going to slough all this off into the San Juan Creek,” said Gabriel, the wildlife ecologist, running the grow site’s loose soil through his fingers. “That creek right below us is going to not just contaminate critical habitat for the Arroyo Toad, but it’s going to go downstream to San Juan Capistrano.”
Typically run by drug-trafficking organizations, an average grow site may have 2,000 plants and yield hundreds to thousands of pounds of marijuana worth millions. New strains have allowed traffickers to get more product per plant, making grows even more profitable, according to law enforcement.
And losing a few sites a year to busts by the Forest Service is just the cost of doing business, said Special Agent in Charge Don Hoang, who heads Forest Service law enforcement for the region. “It’s a rule of probability. If they grow as many [sites] as they can, they know that we’re going to find a few of them. And then there’s stuff that we don’t find, and that’s where they make their profit.”
Setting up a grow site isn’t cheap. It takes time, planning and money to bring in the infrastructure and labor — from miles of irrigation pipe to thousands of pounds of fertilizers and armed workers who live at the grow site all season long.
“One drug traffic organization can invest, let’s say, a quarter-million — a half-million dollars into one grow. And then pull out a 200 percent to 300 percent net gain from that,” said Gabriel. “I don’t think anybody’s investment portfolio could ever do that.”
While some grow sites may be hiding just a mile or so off a main highway, others can take officers days to reach. Growers are typically armed, Hoang said, and often have a tactical advantage when law enforcement comes in to try to break up their operation.
The Forest Service’s law enforcement division has arrested more than 2,170 people for cultivating marijuana on national forest land in California since 2000. The Forest Service and partner agencies bust more than 200 such sites on public lands annually, but clean ups, like the one in the Cleveland National Forest, are expensive.
The team at the Cleveland National Forest site pulled out nearly a ton and a half of trash on one day in October, more than a mile of irrigation piping, 1,110 pounds of fertilizer, and bottle after bottle of banned pesticide, much of the bulkier material removed from the forest by helicopter. It is one of more than 40 sites cleaned up on national forest land in California alone this year, at an average cost of $40,000 per site — before hazardous material disposal. But that’s just a drop in the bucket, said Gabriel.
There are hundreds of sites a year spread across California’s 20 million acres of national forest alone — the Forest Service simply does not have enough resources to tackle every one. There is no dedicated funding for these operations, but the agency’s overall law enforcement budget has stayed at roughly the same size for most of the last decade.
“In reality, we need 20.2 to 23.2 million [dollars] for 5 to 8 years to fully address the topic in California alone,” Gabriel said. “Essentially, we put in only 10 to 12 percent of what is truly needed annually.”
The technology to detect sites has improved over time, but the agency estimates that in a given year it detects roughly half of the sites on its land. And of the sites the agency detects, about a quarter are able to keep operating unhindered because the agency doesn’t have the resources to bust them before the traffickers harvest. The agency identifies dozens of grow sites annually that they are unable to get to before harvest.
Overall, arrests for these grow sites have been on the decline since 2008, and the number of grow sites and plants eradicated in California’s national forests has dropped steeply in the past five years.https://iframe.nbcnews.com/j7cei8p?_showcaption=true&app=1
With the proper resources, said Gabriel, the agency could eliminate marijuana grows within the next eight years. “We have the will to do this, and we’re ready to do this,” he said. “We leave them dirt, they don’t come back.”
According to the Forest Service, once a grow site has been cleaned and restored to its natural state, growers tend not to come back. That’s why increasing funding for those clean-up efforts is so important, said McIntyre of the CROP Project.
“They need a lot more juice. They need a lot more people. And they need funding to actually see this through,” said McIntyre, whose coalition includes bipartisan lawmakers, scientists, law enforcement officials, environmentalists and legal marijuana organizations. “Without substantial funding, it’s Whack-a-Mole.”
Some of that additional funding may soon be on its way. The infrastructure bill Biden signed last month included a substantial increase in Forest Service funding to fight and prevent wildfires. The House also increased money for the agency in its annual spending bill, with the Appropriations Committee specifically expressing support in its accompanying report for agency efforts to detect and remove these sites, but the Senate has yet to do the same. Bipartisan members of California’s House delegation have also proposed a bill that would increase criminal penalties for stealing water from federal lands.
The alternative is dire, McIntyre said. “We are one campfire, one dropped cigarette, one getaway fire in a trespass grow away from a landscape fire that could burn a million acres. And when that happens, we lose that public resource for an entire generation.