Eric Westervelt / NPR
Water and wildlife in the country's public forests are slowly poisoned by insecticides and other chemicals used in illegal marijuana operations, according to forest police and researchers. They warn that potential environmental damage can continue for generations.
Many of the growth is the result of highly organized drug cartels that take advantage of the dense forest canopy to help hide their work.
"The real crime here is the fact that they basically kill America's public lands, kill wildlife, kill us from our water," says Kevin Meyer, a law enforcement official with the U.S. Forest Service, "That's something. which, you know, won't be fixed. "
Now, an unlikely coalition in California – including environmentalists, law enforcement officials, politicians, wildlife environmentalists and representatives of the legal cannabis industry – has joined forces, to try to reduce those illegal operations and the environmental hazards they pose.
Some of this coalition recently visited a site found deep in California's Shasta Trinity National Forest. They and a group of armed forestry agents headed down a steep hill over a creek on a warm autumn day, through a tangle of fir trees and madron trees, and large leafy maples turned golden yellow.
Finally, the forest gives way to growing growth and a camp site. It is typical in shape: terraced plots carved incorrectly in a hill, frightened by wild fire. Burnt trees and new growth offer little coverage from aerial surveillance. Two Mexican nationals were arrested at the scene in September on suspicion of involvement in a cartel.
There are about 3,000 pounds of garbage dumped here and propane tanks for up to 3 miles of plastic irrigation pipes – an indication this site has probably used for years. Most of it will eventually have to be pulled from a helicopter.
But garbage is the smallest problem.
"This is Bromethalin, which is a neurotoxin rodenticide," says wildlife ecologist Greta Wenger, who holds a spent container that holds bait bags to kill rodents. Plastic irrigation lines run around a makeshift kitchen strewn with open bags of fertilizer and used commercial insecticide bottles.
Eric Westervelt / NPR
Wenger points to a tree where he found about a gallon of concentrated carbofuran, an insecticide banned by E.P.A for all legal purposes. Carbofuran is manufactured in the US by Pennsylvania-based FMC Corp, which exports the product to Mexico, India and other countries. The EU, Canada and Brazil have complete bans on carbofuran.
"It's incredibly toxic," Wenger says. "A quarter teaspoon can kill a 600-pound black bear. So obviously only a small amount can kill a human . It stays in the ecosystem for a long time."
Wenger, who studies the impact of illegal growth on forest ecosystems, co-founded the Integral Ecology Research Center, a California-based nonprofit organization. She is attending a recent bust to help mitigate exposure, assess damage and clean up toxins.
"We have established [carbofuran] in soil, in cannabis plants, in native vegetation, in water, in infrastructure. we've got it, "says Wenger." It's terrifying. "
Growing pots of horses has been a problem for many years – from hippies to cartels. But the new thing, according to Wenger, is that cartel makers use more poisons and
They are doing this to protect their crops from insects as well as from rodents that love to chew in water plants, and an increasing number of studies, including their own , show alarming levels of pesticide and insecticide contamination throughout
"The California mountain lion population is exposed to anticoagulant rodenticides at a rate of over 90%," she says. "We just get rodent data. The prey base for all species that are disturbing when you talk about mountain lions, fishermen, foxes, spotted owls, other forest rake birds, the prey base that supports these species is contaminated. "
This exposure is beginning to damage the offspring of wildlife, including Pacific fishermen, an elusive carnivore in the geese family that prefers distant forests. It is a candidate for inclusion in the federal and California endangered species list.
Murad Gabriel, Wenger's colleague and environmentalist for wildlife disease, documented that 85% of California fishermen were exposed to rodenticide.
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"Fishermen have both intrauterine transfer and breast milk," says Gabriel. "The female transfers this anticoagulant rodenticide to its fruit, or when it is born and exposed, it can be transferred to this mother's milk."
And when fishermen and other wildlife found die, for example, a whole host of animals and insects, feed on the carcase, spreading the poisons further.
"Much like the same long-term inheritance effects that DDT produced during the day," says Gabriel, referring to the infamous insecticide that nearly destroyed several species, including the Bald Eagle, before being banned in 1972 in the United States. ] There is also evidence that waterways and fish are damaged by penetration. This site is up by the big creek. Because water flows from larger tributaries, there is a high chance of pollution, researchers say, not just water.
"Potentially aquatic organisms in aquatic ecosystems could also be affected. We already see signs of 'pollution,' says Gabriel.
Combating such operations can be difficult. California Forest Service police average 220 on an annual basis for site attacks and eradication operations, according to spokesman Paul Wade.
But the agency does not really know how many sites are in federal lands. Officials estimate they find less than half.
In all California lands – private, state and public – the state attorney general says law enforcement seized illegal marijuana worth more than $ 1.5 billion in fiscal 2019.
"Illegal cannabis growing, devastating "Our communities. Criminals who neglect life, poison our waters, damage our public lands and arm the illicit black cannabis market will be brought to justice," Attorney General Xavier Bessera said in a statement.
A total of 148 police arrested and seized 168 weapons from 345 attacked breeding grounds in the state as part of a campaign in California against the planting of marijuana or CAMP involving local, state and federal partners, including the Forest Service.
The Forest Service receives limited air support from CAMP to assist in the detection of illegal cultivation sites. But officials say that's not nearly enough. This Shasta-Trinity site was found using a computer algorithm that scans satellite and aerial images for irregularities in the landscape.
"When you add a human element that is rows of plants, these are anomalies in the landscape that can be found that are different from natural vegetation," says Adam Cummings, a biologist and forest researcher who helped develop "I see this as a piece of the puzzle that helps reduce their number in our landscape and clean up the trash and toxins that are left."
Despite legalization in 11 states and the District of Columbia, there is a thriving black pot market The drug cartels are still yours waiting for a way to make quick money alone, the site alone produced nearly 9,000 plants, according to officials, for an estimated crop value of about $ 1.5 million.
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"We estimate that 95% or more of public land growth is controlled by foreign drug distribution organizations," says Rich McIntyre, who heads CROP, a public land cannabis project. CROP is a new group that is trying to get more public funding to clean up these sites and to increase police, science and public support for the problem. "These manufacturers are trying to undercut the legal market by about 50 percent and, of course, much of the product they grow is filled with these poisons," McIntry says, "and is likely to find its way into the market in various forms. – colored, oil and pens. "
Cutting the budget of the Forest Service left the agency without enough boots on the ground to stop more of growth, let alone help repair the damage. There are only six law enforcement officers to patrol the entire 2.2 million acres of Shasta-Trinity, California's largest national forest.
The agency also has no reclamation or hazardous materials teams to deal with this expanding problem. In addition to wildlife, there are concerns about the risks to tourists and other park users.
A recent analysis by the Headwaters Economics group showed that the visit of the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management has grown by about 15% over the past decade, while leisure agencies' budgets in these agencies have decreased by a similar amount, as in we were reporting.
'The Forest Service is grossly underfunded on a number of fronts not only on the front of law enforcement agencies but also on the scientific front. And this is something we hope to change, "McIntryre tells CROP.
There is evidence that this Shasta Trinity site was active in 2015 and reactivated this year.
" The solutions are very simple. : You prevent it from deleting, removing infrastructure and removing chemicals, "says Gabriel, a disease ecologist." But if there is no funding mechanism and we don't remove that infrastructure, it will be reactivated in the next few years "by the same manufacturers.
In California alone, there is currently a marked lag behind about 2000 contaminated illegal cultivation areas in national forests, he says, are thousands of mini-toxic sites in your national forests that are waiting for major cleanup.