In the southern end of Big Sur, Salmon Creek and its waterfall beckon bathers and the Silver Peak Wilderness lures hikers. But recent visitors didn’t know that a 6,500-plant cannabis operation was spoiling the area. Habitats were being destroyed by cultivation, water was being diverted for irrigation and banned pesticides were flowing into the creek and eventually the ocean.
On July 15, officials from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service rode up in at least seven pickup trucks and a helicopter to raid the grow. The wardens and rangers approached the site where they encountered two people. Cristo Sanchez Suarez was standing with his back to the officers, who ordered him to raise his hands. As he turned around, he allegedly threw a cup of sulfuric acid, hitting the face of a CDFW warden, then began running away. The warden’s dog, however, chased Suarez down.
Suarez and his alleged accomplice, Alejandro Barbosa Mejia, were arrested and charged with a series of felonies. Their preliminary hearing is set for Sept. 24 in Monterey County Superior Court.
The cannabis bust is one of several incidents involving criminal activity in Big Sur and its backcountry, the most recent being the arrest of an alleged arsonist and illegal pot grower near the origin of the Dolan Fire.
“Coastal areas like Big Sur provide a lot of resources for illegal growers – most importantly access to water,” says Janice Mackey, the cannabis public information officer for CDFW. “Public land grows are a huge public safety risk and are usually guarded by armed individuals who will do what they feel is necessary to protect the plants.”
The problem has existed for decades and is a major environmental threat, Mackey adds.
Until about a decade ago, law enforcement agencies enlisted the help of volunteers to clean up after illegal grows were busted, according to Mike Splain, executive director of Ventana Wilderness Alliance.
“We built special cargo packs for this purpose,” he says. “We cleaned up an extensive grow site near Chews Ridge and two others along Nacimiento River drainage. Then something changed. The Forest Service decided these were hazmat sites and they felt volunteers didn’t have the proper training.”