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In California, officials have destroyed thousands of the illegal pot plants they say Mexican cartels were growing on public land.
Illegal marijuana cultivation within California’s public forestlands continues to pose environmental and safety threats, but local, state and federal authorities on Tuesday detailed progress they say they’ve made in recent months to combat the problem.
The officials said growers are using dangerous pesticides that can contaminate water and harm wildlife and that they are diverting millions of gallons of water for irrigation. Criminals running the operations tend to be armed, raising concerns about violence.
“It’s a crisis, quite frankly,” Vicki Christiansen, chief forester for the U.S. Forest Service, said during a press conference on Tuesday.
McGregor Scott, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, said Mexican drug cartels are behind the illegal grow operations and that the sites are a problem in national forests throughout the state, from the Oregon border, to near Los Angeles County.
Law enforcement has eradicated 95 grow sites and about 638,000 plants, and seized 12-and-half tons of processed marijuana, as part of a program dubbed Operation Forest Watch, Scott said. The crackdown has led to 77 people getting arrested and charged in federal court.
“We believe that this enforcement effort has been very successful,” Scott added.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said state efforts this year have led to the destruction of over 488,000 illegal marijuana plants at about 164 grow sites, and 35 arrests.
The push to eradicate the illegal pot farms comes as adult recreational use of marijuana produced and sold under a state regulatory framework became legal in California earlier this year.
Law enforcement officials who spoke at the press conference Tuesday said cartels are exporting much of the illegally grown pot out of California to sell elsewhere in the U.S.
“Our region, our counties are being used as a hub for illicit drug trafficking to just about every state in the union,” said Jon Lopey, sheriff in Siskiyou County, which is located in northern California, and borders Oregon to the north.
“We have human trafficking, you have violent crime, you have a lot of crime that is just overwhelming rural counties that have limited resources,” he added.
One of the pesticides found at grow sites is Carbofuran, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began banning in the 1990s because it was believed to be killing birds. The agency about a decade ago moved to block the use of the chemical on food crops, saying it presented human health risks.
Scott said the pesticide has been found at at least eight grow sites this year and that four law enforcement officers needed to be hospitalized after coming in contact with the chemical.
Meanwhile, the diversion of water to irrigate marijuana plants is a special concern in California, a state that has grappled with drought conditions in recent years. Christiansen said national forests are a source for about 60 percent of California’s water supply.
Estimates she cited indicate it can take 900 gallons of water to grow one pot plant and that illegal growers divert about 1.2 billion gallons of water from national forests in the state annually.
Congress recently allotted $2.5 million to support efforts to protect and restore public lands from illegal marijuana cultivation activities, Christiansen noted. But officials on hand Tuesday suggested it would take additional state and federal money to fully address the problem.
“Don’t stop in providing us with the resources we need,” Becerra said.
The illegal grow sites are commonly found in remote areas that can be hard to access. In addition to using water and hazardous pesticides, officials say growers are leaving behind trash and debris and are poaching and poisoning animals, including bear and elk.
At one point this summer, while battling a wildfire known as the Hirz Fire, firefighters had to avoid an area that was a grow site due to concerns that they would encounter dangerous chemicals or armed criminals, according to Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko.
Operation Forest Watch began on Oct. 1, of last year and is set to end on Sept. 30.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.