(CN) – A coterie of federal, state and local law enforcement officials, forest managers and scientists unveiled the results of their efforts to combat the environmental degradation associated with marijuana grows on public lands in California Tuesday.
The California Department of Justice has teamed up with its federal counterparts, county sheriffs, officials from the United States Forest Service, and environmental researchers in Operation Forest Watch, an effort first revealed in May to catalog and dismantle illegal marijuana grows on public lands in California.
“There are 18 national forests in California and all 18 have been environmentally damaged to a severe degree by these grows,” U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said during a press conference on Tuesday.
Officials offered a litany of environmental problems created by illegal marijuana grows, including water diversions, vegetation destruction, wildlife poaching and highly toxic pesticides that kill wildlife, poison the soil and pollute entire watersheds.
“Because of a marijuana grow in Trinity County, the banned pesticide carbofuran made it into the local water supply,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said. “Carbofuran is dangerous for everyone living in proximity to the grow site.”
Drug traffickers use carbofuran, a highly toxic pesticide with known risks to human health, even though it is banned in the United States, according to Scott.
“It comes up from Mexico,” Scott said. “These cartels are using the well-worn paths of their traditional distribution networks not only for the illicit drug trade.”
In addition to polluting entire watersheds, carbofuran endangers the workers helping with cleanup operations on California grow sites.
Dr. Mourad Gabriel, the co-director of the Integral Ecology Research Center, said he visited nine grow sites during the past grow season and discovered the highly toxic pesticide at eight of them.
“They poison the wildlife because wildlife conflicts with their money-making,” Gabriel said.
While law enforcement officials will continue to work through the grow season until harvest — typically in September or October — they shared the fruits of their interdiction efforts thus far.
Federal agents located and eradicated about 95 grow sites on public lands, destroying about 638,000 plants while seizing nearly 25,000 pounds of processed marijuana and 20,000 pounds of pesticides and fertilizer. They also removed nearly 84 miles of water lines used to divert natural streams, creeks and rivers.
The feds arrested 77 people and confiscated 82 firearms as part of the operation. And California state agents stopped 154 illegal grows on public lands, while arresting 42 people and seizing 87 weapons, Becerra said.
These numbers do not include arrests and seizures made and conducted by local enforcement agencies.
Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey said illegal grows have been particularly taxing on resource-strapped rural counties in California.
“We are dealing with drug trafficking organizations, organized crime, and the violent crime that results in overwhelming rural counties,” Lopey said Tuesday. “We couldn’t do this without the cooperation of our state and federal partners.”
Officials emphasized their platform is not a critique of legal marijuana in California, but instead means to focus public attention on the environmental problem of illegal grows on public land.
“It’s a quiet crisis for our public lands,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said. “Our goal is to restore and retain the ecological resilience of these public lands and create a safe experience for the public and communities that surround the national forest.”