Marijuana in the Woods: Endangering Hikers and Killing Wildlife

marijuana santa barbaraMarijuana growing in the Los Padres National Forest. (Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department)

Marijuana Increasingly Grown In National Forests

According to the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department, “large-scale marijuana cultivation is a serious and increasingly widespread problem on public lands in California, including the Los Padres National Forest.” In 2010, out of California’s 18 national forests, the Los Padres ranked fifth for the number of marijuana plants eradicated by law enforcement officers.(1)

I have come across numerous marijuana grow operations over the years. Too many to recall. Both inactive no longer used sites and actively growing plants. I’ve seen them in one form or another in Bear Canyon, Potrero John Creek and Godwin Canyon in Ventura County. In Santa Barbara County, I’ve come across several grow sites in the Montecito foothills, Cieneguitas Canyon, Goleta foothills below West Camino Cielo and in Lewis Canyon, to name just a few.

Choose any major canyon or flowing creek and there is a decent chance that it’s in current use or has been used previously to grow marijuana. Spend enough time off-trail in this part of the Golden State and a hiker is likely to stumble across the work of guerrilla growers at some point.

In times past, out of youthful naiveté, I was never concerned about the danger of a potential run-in with a grower. Over the last couple of years, however, my view of this issue has changed. Now I feel the creep of concern wash over me when out alone off-trail in the woods and I see the tell-tale signs of growers.

Figueroa Mountain LookoutA Threat To Hikers

Whereas I once assumed that weed growing around these parts was the work of harmless potheads looking to grow their own smoke and make a few dollars, it is now clear that in many instances they are operated by Mexican drug cartels, and other ruthless characters who will not hesitate to turn my day into a living nightmare. News reports chronicle the finding of high power rifles and law enforcement officers being fired on when raiding grow sites.

I never carried a firearm a single time in my younger years, but I’ve now been forced to wrestle back and forth against a growing compulsion to carry a gun whenever I go for an off-trail hike. I would rather not. I have no interest in getting into a firefight and I have enough to carry without the added burden of lugging around a loaded pistol.

But the law does not provide protection, it punishes the perpetrator after the fact. Dialing 911, if by chance there is cell service, is a futile waste of time when I’m far away up some remote roadless canyon. Calling for help that takes hours to arrive is pointless when all I have are seconds to defend myself.

I am fed up dealing with the consequences of growers in the forests and open spaces I frequent. I don’t appreciate having to concern myself with the possibility of being shot at or maimed or killed by booby traps when I’m recreating.

marijuana grow irrigation lineThe tell-tale sign of a weed growing operation, black plastic irrigation tubing running through a canyon.

Consequences of Chemical Fertilizer in Riparian and Marine Environments

I’m disgusted and angered by the tons of trash and toxic chemicals left behind by growers. I recently found a couple of hundred pounds of chemical fertilizer left beside a tributary of Sespe Creek, which during winter rains will leach into the drainage and wash down stream threatening critical habitat for the endangered southern steelhead. The nitrates from the fertilizer can spur harmful algal blooms in creeks and rivers, which can lead to hypoxia or depleted levels of oxygen that can suffocate fish.

But it does not stop there. Eventually the fertilizer may reach the ocean where it works in a similar manner but with an added twist. The fertilizer fed algal blooms can release vast quantities of the neurotoxin domoic acid into the water, which is absorbed and concentrated in shellfish like clams and mussels.

Aside from the possibility of poisoning humans, these are favorite foods of southern sea otters, which are officially listed under the Endangered Species Act as “threatened.” The otters eat the poison laden shellfish and become sick or die. In addition, blue-green algae cause microcystin intoxication in sea otters, a deadly liver infection.

los Padres National Forest marijuana growLos Padres National Forest creeks are prime pot growing territory.

Does it stop there? Theoretically, no. Sea otters are a keystone species that play a vital role in the marine environment. They feed upon, and thus help check the population of, sea urchins which are voracious eaters of kelp. If sea otters disappear so does the kelp, as the urchin population explodes and devours entire kelp forests leaving behind barren reef.

Kelp forests hold one of the greatest concentrations of biodiversity in all the world’s oceans and support about one quarter of native marine life in local waters. The submarine forests provide essential habitat for over 800 organisms from the tiniest sea creatures to large game fish and mammals. As the otters go, so does the kelp and all other life that depends on it.

While it may be a stretch to link such wide ranging destruction to marijuana growers, it is possible with enough chemicals washing into local watersheds. More to the point, though, the environment is already under enough stress from various causes, including massive fertilizer runoff from the state’s intensive agriculture. Additional sources of loosed chemicals only serve to exacerbate existing problems.

Upper Santa Ynez RiverA potrero in  the upper Santa Ynez River watershed of the Los Padres National Forest.

Consequences of Pesticides on Wildlife

Lush well-watered pot plants growing in the hot and dry Mediterranean climate of Southern California are extremely attractive to hungry and thirsty rodents. To combat this problem growers haul in and carelessly disperse large quantities of rodenticide.

The result is the indiscriminate, incidental death of countless other animals from owls and hawks to bobcats and mountain lions, who die of secondary poisoning from feeding upon rats and mice that have eaten the rodent bait.

The poisoning of carnivores like coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions from anticoagulant rat bait is well documented. According to the National Park Service, 80 percent of bobcats in the Ventura County area that were tested had some form of rat poison in their systems and their population has plummeted.(2) While this is largely attributed to common residential and commercial use of poisons, it illustrates the catastrophic impact resulting from such deadly chemicals.

It is also possible for still more species to die of tertiary poisoning. For example, a condor feeding upon a bobcat that died from eating poisoned rats. It is not out of the ordinary for an area around a grow zone to reek of death.

In 2010, over three million marijuana plants were eradicated from Los Padres National Forest alone. Consider how many pounds of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides were used to grow them and the impact it had on wildlife. And that is merely from grow zones that were discovered by police and it also does not include all other forestland outside officially designated national forests.

screen shotAn article in the Ventura County Star newspaper detailing the tertiary poisoning of two mountain lions from rat poison.

Palms at Goleta BeachThe Santa Ynez Mountains are a grower’s dream. Plants rooted on the sun-saturated south facing mountainside enjoy long hours of direct sunlight, intensified by the mirror-like reflection off the Pacific Ocean, and if growing on a slope get hit with direct sunlight from root to tip.

My Opinion

I take a libertarian position on the matter of marijuana possession and use. I find it utterly preposterous that the government has outlawed a plant. The issue for me is not marijuana, but how and where it’s grown. I draw the line when it comes to the careless, inconsiderate and destructive practices of guerrilla growers polluting my backyard and threatening my life and well being, just so they can make a buck or fill their stash box.

UPDATE July 26, 2013:

July 25, 2013

“$85 million in pot plants seized

The individuals responsible, cut down the native vegetation, introduce toxic chemicals into these National Forest lands, harm the wildlife and divert natural water supplies into naturally arid landscapes. A major focus of these marijuana eradication operations is the removal of the chemicals, poisons and trash that were unlawfully introduced onto our National Forest lands.”

http://m.keyt.com/news/85-million-in-pot-plants-seized/-/19201834/21156456/-/622asrz/-/index.html

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22 Responses to Marijuana in the Woods: Endangering Hikers and Killing Wildlife

  1. Thank you for bringing light to this. Excellent piece that was well thought out and researched. I’ve shared it on my page.

  2. Nico says:

    100% agree with your entire post there Jack. I couldn’t care less whether folks choose to smoke, or use the stuff, but it infuriates me that our public lands have become a prime zone for guerrilla growers. The ecological impacts on our waterways and wildlife, and the potential recreational/safety impacts of the growing operations on unsuspecting hikers and forest visitors is unacceptable.

    Folks who knowingly (or otherwise) buy from unknown sources are potentially supporting these exact types of growers. I wonder where most of the weed grown in our local forest ends up? Do you think it stays local or is distributed to a larger area? Is most of what’s grown locally in our forests considered high grade or junk weed? Someone needs to start up a stoner PR campaign to educate customers on their buying decisions. (only half joking…)

    • Jack Elliott says:

      I’d say most of what’s grown in the forest are high potency strains, because for so many years now pot has been selected and hybrid for such traits and there isn’t much junk out there. I don’t even know that people with little money to spend buy crap, because the bar has been raised so high and the overall quality increased so significantly, and prices have drop substantially.

      But even if the forest stuff is potent, I can’t imagine that once it’s harvested and hauled out and shipped that it’s in very good shape. Imagine covertly harvesting and hauling out how ever many pounds would have come off the 55,000 plants found on Pine Mountain last week. Not likely that it can be removed without a great deal of damage. It’s probably dried and then pressed into large bricks and then distributed. In other words, even if potent, it’s relative junk compared to what is widely available around here.

      A lot of supply comes from professional growers in state and it’s potent, well cured and in immaculate condition. I would be surprised if what the cartels grow is distributed around our immediate area, but surely it has to be sold in Los Angeles, a city that size and of such close proximity to the grow site is too attractive a market to ignore.

  3. stevenschlah says:

    On your “Opinion”, I totally agree with you. As A 67 year old, I “dabbled” in the “weed” over the years , but NOT for the last 10. But the federal government’s arguments are fallacious (they outlawed it so that the new “liquor lobby” could provide more profits to the Seagrams, Fleishmans, Daniels, Schmirnoffs, Beams, etc.) and the government could “control” Marijuana for its potential taxation revenues (as one can grow it in one’s own backyard). One MUST also realize that the CIA has “trafficed” (spelling) in illicit drugs (Opium and Cocaine) since at least Vietnam, to ‘bankroll their covert affairs and just maybe, they do in “weed” too and don’t want ‘competition’, which would drive prices down. Just a thought. The “weed” plant, for the past 5,000 years, has proved its usefulness in many capacities and even the US Government grew it (in many southern states) in the World War I years for its rope.
    But, I totally agree that “cartels” have moved into our “outback” and have made our backyard ‘dangerous’. Be careful Jack and all those that use our Los Padres. Steve

  4. Anonymous says:

    I am a off trail hiker too and have come acros pot grows. I have considered getting a handgun to carry. Ironically that would make me a criminal since is illegal to carry or transport a pistol without a conceal and carry permit and I am told SB county never issues one- period. I am agnostic about weed but do not use it. I think our politicians have a love affair with all things politically correct including illegal immigration. As long as the politician seek to make it as easy as possible to live here illegally we will have this kind of activity that threatens our lives and life style.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      I’m not offering legal advice, and don’t take my word for it. . .

      But with respect to bearing arms, it’s not across the board illegal to do so in the forest. It depends on what the official designation of that forestland is, for example, Wilderness, National Forest, National Park, State Park. . .etc.

      You have to navigate your way through the convoluted California laws to determine where exactly you are legally allowed to carry a weapon.

      For instance, you are allowed to open carry a loaded handgun in an officially designated Wilderness or National Forest so long as hunting and shooting are allowed and there are no other restrictions peculiar to the area.

  5. Be careful out there, I’ve read more about instances when people have been injured of killed by booby traps than being shot at. Neither way would be a good way to go.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve hiked alot of off-trail creeks and would say 50% have evidence of a previous grow operation and 25% have an active one in our area. I generally hike creeks from Nov to Feb to avoid some one being there that could shoot me and often turn around at the first sign if am alone. I’ve heard rumors of fish hooks at eye level and concealed bear traps, but thankfully haven’t run across those.
    I think this is the strongest argument to legalize it in CA. I would have to think if it could be grown legally, the profit margins of these grow sites would make it not worth it. I can’t believe how far and how gnarly the access is to some of the sites. I never report them to the cops because I don’t trust them to protect my identity (esp with $50 M on the line with the cartel). This needs to be more in the publics awareness and thanks for publishing the piece.

  7. I had no idea you had banditos around there! 😮 What you’re saying about the repercussions of their illegal activities is spot-on and needs advertising widely – I definitely don’t think you’re overstating the case at all. I hope many people read this on your blog!
    Carol.

  8. Jim says:

    Well said.

  9. Jack Elliott says:

    A few of the most recent busts July 25, 2013:

    “$85 million in pot plants seized

    The individuals responsible, cut down the native vegetation, introduce toxic chemicals into these National Forest lands, harm the wildlife and divert natural water supplies into naturally arid landscapes. A major focus of these marijuana eradication operations is the removal of the chemicals, poisons and trash that were unlawfully introduced onto our National Forest lands.”

    http://m.keyt.com/news/85-million-in-pot-plants-seized/-/19201834/21156456/-/622asrz/-/index.html

  10. It would be nice to not have to think about carrying a pistol, although this has become a simple necnecessity. Wouldn’t you rather deal will the consequences, then be dead?

  11. You carry a GPS right? Right down the corredance, keep moving and when you get home call the police. With the amount you afield and constant tips to the police you can do your part to clean up these scum bags!

  12. Amen. And for the people that are still gung-ho on spending tax dollars on this, if the destruction of forest habitat doesn’t matter – how about lining the pockets of Mexican cartels? Seriously. The surest way to wipe out the cartels is to legalize marijuana in the U.S. Their profits disappear overnight.

  13. Jeffrey Vences says:

    I agree that the growers should not be growing in such places but drug cartels?? Really, if they were drug cartels all of those hiking areas would be closed to the public because of the dangers lurking.. drug cartels don’t play games.. I’m worried they will try too get to confident and go there to grow more but this would’ve been in the news up to today if they were cartels.. lol great post by the way

  14. Jim says:

    This is an extremely serious problem that gets far too little publicity. In 2009, 3/4 BILLION dollar street value of outdoor marijuana was destroyed by the authorities in SB County. In SB County this is a MULTI BILLION dollar business with cartels and all. From what I understand, one of the reasons why growers carry guns is because a rival cartel may want to take control of “their” area. So basically foreign cartels have decided that they control areas of our public forests and even privately owned land. It reminds me of something out of Columbia or Burma.

    As to legalization, I don’t think marijuana is truly legal anywhere in the world. By that I mean legal from mass production to end consumer use. Even in Amsterdam the production of marijuana is controlled by criminal syndicates which are “tolerated”. I really don’t think we will see truly legal marijuana in our lifetimes.

    On the issue of carrying a pistol, the national forests are governed by California state law. So it is illegal to carry concealed (unless you can get a permit, which is highly unlikely). You have to open carry. I think it might be dangerous to open carry because if the growers see you carrying you are now a threat. Concealed carry would be preferable (if legal) because then you are “just another hiker”.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Hey Jim. Thanks for your comment.

      I do not mean to get in an argument here, but your comment brought a number of things to mind. This is not necessarily directed at you, but in response to the issues you raised.

      If you’re looking after a $200 million crop, any hiker is a threat regardless if they’re armed or not. Any hiker that discovers a grow site or sees suspicious activity or grow paraphernalia may report it to authorities leading to the crop being destroyed along with the further risk of having growers arrested.

      Of course, and this is probably what you were suggesting, an armed hiker poses a direct threat to the personal safety and life of growers. But I would say that it is highly unlikely that an armed hiker would initiate a firefight if they saw a grower. I think I am probably much more confrontational and aggressive than most people out there, and I would never initiate a firefight. I would, however, waste no time returning fire if fired upon.

      I think that were a grower to see an armed hiker they would do what they could to remain out of sight and not initiate hostilities, because if they fired on an unsuspecting armed hiker 1.) That hiker then may stand their ground and return fire threatening the life of the grower. 2.) If the hiker escaped they would certainly report it to police who would then have the location swarming with a small army of heavily armed law enforcement agents as well as setting up a perimeter and blockades at various locations to prevent the escape of the suspects. 3.) If the hiker was killed SAR would be sent out on a search looking for a “lost” hiker and be combing the forest thereby raising the possibility of finding the grow site. 4.) Somebody else in the forest may hear the shots and report it. 5.) The hiker may have some means, like a SPOT, to communicate with people back in the city and thus initiate some form of response after they were attacked.

      I think growers would be highly reluctant to attract any unnecessary attention to themselves by attacking a hiker who was not aware they were there. In all likelihood the growers would have far more powerful weapons relative any hiker. Most hikers only carry handguns, whereas growers would likely have carbines or shotguns. And in addition to likely having greater firepower, the growers would have the element of surprise, too. In such a scenario it seems logical that the growers would remain out of sight and not make contact with the armed hiker. And even if the hiker saw the growers it doesn’t seem likely they would do anything that would result in drawing in law enforcement as mentioned above.

      Personally, I don’t give a damn what California law says about carrying firearms in the forest. There were once armed rangers patrolling the forest. Now we have unarmed “Volunteer Wilderness Rangers,” which are good for nothing when it comes to protecting the lives of citizens from armed cartels other than perhaps incidentally serving as human shields. The only armed ranger I’ve seen in the local forest recently, aside from at campgrounds near roads, was a Parks Ranger on my recent hike to Barger Arch. He was huffing and puffing his way down the lower section of the San Roque Canyon Trail, an overweight unfit man that I would never want with me in a fox hole or trust to protect my life. Furthermore, aside from being fifty yards from a paved road, when I asked him he said he was out in response to a call. He was not proactively ranging, he was responding to a call after the fact.

      Law enforcement will not provide adequate protection and security in the forest to mitigate the threat posed by cartels to hikers. Although perhaps it’s more accurate to say that politicians will not act to provide such protection or that the people will not act to ensure their representatives enable such protection to be provided. What ever the case may be, the threat has only increased in recent years. Environmentalists exacerbate the matter by constantly suing and pestering the USFS thereby reducing access to the forest which lessens the presence of law abiding citizens therein and makes it easier for cartels to operate. So I’d much rather take my chance at facing the punitive repercussions of the law and remain unharmed and alive, than face the mortal threat of running into armed growers, despite my aforementioned argument wherein I stated I thought it unlikely. Not everybody always acts rationally. I cannot for the protection of my life depend on an illiterate Mexican national adhering to logic.

      I do not offer any of this as criticism, but as what I believe to be an observation of objective facts.

      I open carry, however, not because the law states I can’t carry concealed, but because it’s easier when hiking and it’s also easier to draw and fire.

  15. American says:

    I hope the growers get eaten by mountain lions and bears…scum

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