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In Butte County, Supervisor Connelly takes reporters to trespass grows on steep, 45-degree hillsides on private land. The illegal farms are studded with denuded trees and littered with poisons and fertilizers. During one tour, he looked downhill and described the fall rains sweeping it all — the chemicals and the toxic soil — down into the creeks, rivers, and lakes. "It definitely has gone up in the last few years," he said of the number of trespass grows.
But are the impacts from pot-growing larger, or are we just paying more attention to them? The answer appears to be both.
As far back as 1983, CAMP made mention of environmental damage associated with forest grows, said Silvaggio. "The problem is not new. Everyone has known about this problem for many decades."
For example, the back-to-the-landers who seeded Humboldt's pot industry were tree-hugging environmentalists first, and they have long been furious about the second wave of growers who moved in to wreak the same type of havoc as the loggers once did. Groups like EPIC, Friends of the Eel River, and the Mattole Forest Project have been advocating for clean pot-growing techniques — including water reclamation, erosion control, and organic growing methods — since the Nineties. They've gotten a number of environmental groups in Northern California fired up about the issue for at least a decade.
The clamor for more eco-conscious pot-growing then hit a new peak in 2008 with the Hacker Creek diesel spill that fouled a whole watershed. "That broke the code of silence right there, and then people came out," Silvaggio noted.
But experts say what has really amplified the issue this year are two factors: Federal law enforcement has made environmentalism a new platform of the marijuana war, and the media, which never tires of stories that combine shadowy, violent drug cartels with weapons, weed, and helicopters, and can now add cute dead animals to the mix.
Humboldt State University sociologist Josh Meisel said he caught a glimpse of the federal government's new messaging on pot two years ago in a meeting with Tommy LaNier, head of the White House's National Marijuana Initiative. According to Meisel, LaNier said federal authorities "recognize that public opinion has shifted and they can't wage this battle on the historic platform of it being an issue of morality."
"The public doesn't buy that anymore," LaNier said, according to Meisel. "We're aren't going to win this as a battle of morality. We have to wage it in terms of the environmental destruction."
And in a podcast produced by the US Forest Service in August 2009, US Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske said he wanted to build a coalition based on the environmental harms of pot-growing. "What seems to be missing from the regular media reporting on the whole issue is how much damage is occurring to really pristine land," Kerlikowske said.
LaNier said in the same podcast: "We need to bring in ... the Sierra Club, environmental individuals; we need to bring in as many people, to get them on our side to go to Congress and say, 'Hey, this is enough. Those are pristine lands that were set aside for the use of the public, not for the production of marijuana.'"
The shift in strategy is traveling up and down the chain of command. For example, in a 2013 report on the results of a Central Valley marijuana sweep dubbed Operation Mercury, Benjamin Wagner, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of California, based in Sacramento, trumpeted the seizure of half a million marijuana plants and the prosecution of 84 suspects. But instead of focusing on charges of drug trafficking, violence, or weapons, Wagner's office highlighted the environmental damage that the suspects had allegedly caused.
One 26 year-old Mexican citizen who was caught growing 16,205 plants in Sequoia National Forest "caused extensive damage to the land and natural resources," Wagner's office stated. "Native vegetation was cut to make room for the marijuana plants and trash and fertilizer containers were scattered throughout the site, including in flowing streams."
Another Mexican citizen who was convicted of growing 8,876 pot plants cut down native oak trees: "the soil was tilled, and fertilizers and pesticides, including a highly toxic and illegal rat poison from Mexico called Fosfuro de Zinc or zinc phosphide, were spread throughout the site," Wagner's office noted.
And even on the White House's web page on marijuana, the environment gets its own section in which the administration states, "Outdoor marijuana cultivation is harmful to the environment."
Corva laughed when I read him the White House's statement. "That's ridiculous," he said. "Outdoor is better.
"Where does this come from?" he continued. "Sensationalist coverage of the exception rather than the rule, and also the conditions of prohibition, basically."
Meisel added: "There's nothing about growing dope that has to involve massive amounts of energy, dangerous chemicals, water diversion, disrespect to your neighbors, and killing animal species — just like we don't have to do that growing tomatoes. And we don't grow tomatoes in Yosemite. These are unintended consequences of the policy, not the plant.
"My sense is that this has become a tool to break the back of the legalization movement," Meisel continued, referring to the decision by Drug War enforcers to shift their rhetoric from the supposed dangers of smoking weed to the environmental damage caused by trespass grows in order to gain support among environmentalists for the War on Pot. "It's a strategy to undermine local growing across the board, as opposed to going after people who are violating environmental laws."