Huge pot-growing operations are trashing Los Padres National Forest, and no one’s cleaning them up.

Wasted Wilderness: (L) Wild Possibilities: Ventana Wilderness Alliance’s Tom Hopkins surveys some of the forests where illegal operations might take root; (M) Trash strewn across the pot growers’ main camp contaminates Los Padres; (R) a young cannabis plant escapes the cops’ raid. —Kera Abraham

We know they drink Budweiser and Sauza and take pain relievers – maybe for hangovers. They smoke Marlboro Lights, snack on Hostess cupcakes and chug Gatorade. They wear military camouflage and wash their clothes with a powdered blue detergent. They put on protective masks when they spray pesticides.

They live next to a boulder on a mountain in the wilderness, packing in supplies, tending their crops. They’ve planted a little corn, but that’s just for munching. The irrigation pipes webbing the slopes supply a network of almost 20,000 marijuana plants, turning them a vivid green hue rare for mid-summer in the dry and desolate wilderness of Los Padres National Forest.

It was that telltale green that alerted Monterey County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Gonzalez as he cruised the hills in a National Guard helicopter, following up a tip. A nearby landowner, coming across a trail he didn’t recognize, had called the sheriff’s department to report his suspicions.

Gonzalez led a law enforcement team – four others from the county and a Seaside cop – on a long, hot hike to the pot garden in early August. The camp was still functional, but the growers had bailed. Gonzalez and his team hacked down the immature plants and chopped up the irrigation line, leaving most of it on the ground. They also left heaps of the growers’ trash and roughly 30 acres of fouled-up habitat in an area that’s supposed to be one of America’s last pristine places. Federal law defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

About three weeks later, Gonzalez and two other officers who’d busted the operation escort me to the site to check out the damage. I’ve heard horror stories about criminal cartels tearing up and trashing the land, and I want to see if it’s really as bad as all that.

We hike along a low creek, where a small turtle swims in the clear green water; past tufts of scrub oak, where wild boar and deer amble; and up a dry hillside striped red with manzanita. A huge slab of granite shaped like a T-bone hugs the opposite slope of the canyon, its smoothness emphasized by the brush around it.

After hiking for about an hour, we come upon a tangle of dismembered irrigation pipe and hacked-up dry husks on the dirt. A blue-bellied lizard scuttles across our path. This, Gonzalez tells me, is the site.

The difference between this area and the surrounding land is subtle at first glance but dramatic upon closer inspection. The brush has been cleared from the hillside, and in its place irrigation piping snakes to a series of pits where the ganja had been planted. The dry earth is loose and eroding. Trash pocks the landscape: stuffed Wal-Mart bags under boulders, plastic wrappers stuck in branches, containers of gardening chemicals tossed onto the dirt.   

At the base of a wind-sculpted rock wall: a Mazola corn oil bottle, several varieties of fertilizer packaging, a Marlboro Lights carton, a canvas duffel bag, a can of chili con carne. Under a manzanita: a slippery pile of plastic baggies, a coiled irrigation pipe, an empty water bottle, a nappy sweatshirt. Perched between the branches of a madrone tree, a gas mask. A stone’s throw away, a canister of gopher killer.

The three goateed cops lounge in the shade of a giant boulder at the growers’ main camp, cracking jokes and offering commentary as I take inventory of the trash left behind. I feel like an amateur anthropologist. Hmm – the growers heat food and water with these three propane tanks. Someone has a big foot to fit into that tennis shoe. They eat Spam, drink cheap beer and tequila, smoke lots of cigarettes. What do they do with this car battery? What do they listen to with these headphones dangling from a tree branch?

“This is a nice place for a camp,” says Seaside Police Officer Gabe Anderson, the shyest of my escorts. “If it wasn’t all trashed up, I would come camping here.”

Sheriff’s Detective Mark Caldwell gets a little more worked up. “This is not the guy growing six plants in his closet because he’s got cancer. This is on the same level as cocaine or meth,” he says, feet planted wide. “This has nothin’ to do with medicine. This is dope money.”

He shifts, gripping the muzzle of the M-16 slung over his shoulder. “Them comin’ in and tearin’ up our land, that’s bullshit.”

After busting the operation, the cops had only packed out the material they wanted as evidence, Caldwell says. It’s not that the junk doesn’t bother them; it’s just not their job to clean it up.

Gonzalez, as the head of the County of Monterey Marijuana Eradication Team – its only member, actually, since the department re-assigned his partner and declared COMMET a one-man job – is charged with finding the dope and leading the eradication. The work is primarily funded by a federal grant that is usually renewed every year, but it isn’t guaranteed. “Obviously we have to do something to earn it,” Gonzalez says. “We have to produce marijuana.”

State officers with the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) sometimes come along to help. But their focus is also on pot removal, not cleanup, says Cmdr. Michael Johnston.

Before the Iraq War, Caldwell says, the National Guard had more helicopters available to haul out trash. But when cops have to hike for hours to a site in hot, dry weather, sweating in heavy camo and packing weapons, the last thing they want to deal with is cleanup. Some of them may carry out a little trash, but most of it stays at the site. “It’s not something that’s our priority,” Gonzalez says.

In the end, responsibility for the mess falls in the lap of the US Forest Service, which is charged with protecting natural resources in the 2-million-acre Los Padres National Forest. But the agency is too cash-strapped and short-staffed to do a complete cleanup, and no one’s specifically assigned to the task, says Los Padres Patrol Capt. Ray Gould.

“Sometimes a year goes by, or more, before we can go into the sites and actually clean them up,” Gould says. “I would say we don’t have a protocol for cleanup. The priority is to get the marijuana out.”

And even if they do haul out the trash, Forest Service staff can’t even begin to get to the task of landscape restoration. “Zero on that,” Gould admits.

~ ~ ~

The site in Los Padres isn’t the kind of mom ’n’ pop dope farm that used to proliferate across California’s golden hills. Following CAMP’s creation in the ’80s, militaristic helicopters began swooping down on rural California. Camo-clad officials often searched and seized personal property along with plants, inciting charges of civil rights violations, and family-run pot farms became rarer. Now, it seems, the risk of growing pot on public land makes more economic sense if it’s on a large scale.

According to law enforcement officials, the bulk of today’s illegal pot supply comes from industrial operations run by Mexican drug rings on remote public land in the West. “It isn’t just your normal counterculture person that’s out growing a pot crop someplace,” says John Bradford, Monterey District Ranger for Los Padres. “Over the past eight to 10 years we’ve been seeing a lot more drug cartels.”

“Where it used to be the hippies and the beatniks growing dope, now it’s organized crime,” Gould agrees. “There appears to be a lot more of it going on.”

The numbers back him up. CAMP has busted more sites every year since 2001, eradicating a record 1.7 million plants in California in 2006. Eighty percent of those were cultivated on public land. Almost 31,000 plants, or 2 percent of the total, were eradicated in Monterey County last year. Busted gardens in Los Padres, which spans five counties, range from a few hundred to tens of thousands of stalks, Gould says. The largest he can remember had roughly 40,000.

As the fields of pot proliferated, land managers took note of the damage. In radio interviews and newspaper articles, they describe growers clearing south-facing slopes of existing brush, terracing the earth and digging pits for cannabis seedlings. That causes erosion, which can clog up streams and murk up fish passage. Growers often manipulate the streams themselves – digging irrigation canals, building dams or lining creek banks with plastic to deliver more water to their crops. That, too, can funk up ecosystems by making less water available to native plants and wildlife downstream.

The young plants are sometimes placed inside wire mesh to keep out birds and rodents. Pot-growing websites suggest that wood rats and gophers, in particular, have a taste for dope.

“The best fence in the world will not keep rats away from your plants!” advises 1stMarijuanaGrowersPage.com. “Ultimately, you may find it is easier to grow in a greenhouse shed in your own backyard rather than try to keep the rats from eating your outdoor plot.”

Studies have shown that rats doped up with THC tend to get hungry sooner than their sober counterparts. Lab monkeys, given the opportunity, self-administer the drug. Veterinarians have described stoned pets exhibiting dilated pupils, glazed eyes, increased sensitivity to sensory stimuli, disorientation, sleepiness, drooling and “bizarre behavior.”

In other words, pot affects some animals in ways similar to how it affects humans. Given the abundance of renegade pot gardens on public land, it’s reasonable to assume that there are some stoned rats stumbling around Los Padres.

“My understanding is that the rats will gnaw on the plants itself, or they may get into the growers’ supplies,” Gould says. “[Growers] tend to camp along the streams they’ve tapped into, and that’s where we find the pesticides. I find rat poison and those really large rattraps. Then we find that the native wildlife will get caught up in that.”

Forest Service staff also find evidence of fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides at busted pot gardens. On the Los Padres site alone I discover three different brands of fertilizer, a hand-pump pesticide product and gopher killer pellets made with highly toxic zinc phosphide. Once introduced to the environment, these kinds of pesticides can ripple up the food chain, poisoning cougars, coyotes and condors that eat the tainted varmint. Totally unregulated in the hands of illegal growers, ag chemicals can do serious damage to the air, soil, water and wildlife.

Finally, consider the impacts of lonely growers who bring the comforts of home to their camps in the wilderness – washing their bodies and clothes in the streams, burning propane, running leaky generators, littering plastic. “Just everything you can imagine if you were gonna go out and live in the woods for months on end,” Gould says. “They don’t pack out their trash, and they’re re-supplied weekly or biweekly. It just builds up.”

~ ~ ~

So who’s left holding the trash bag? It’s the Forest Service’s job to make sure that busted pot sites get cleaned up and restored, but Gould admits it ain’t happening in Los Padres. Staff and budget shortages are his excuse – but two men accuse him of frustrating other efforts to get the job done.

Deputy Gonzalez says he’s offered to gather a team of officers to clean up the wasted gardens. Gould, he claims, has been unresponsive. The patrol captain counters that Gonzalez has never made that offer. Pressed to clarify, they both hold their ground. The relationship between the two appears to be tense.

The Sheriff’s Department is in charge of pot busts, but Gonzalez – who coordinates with the state-run CAMP – has to report anything done on Los Padres land to Gould. Gould, as head of the forest’s law enforcement team, is required to support the county’s work and deal with the aftermath. The tension between the two agencies may simply be a power clash.

After noticing that the government is getting little done by way of cleanup, a local conservation activist stepped up.

Tom Hopkins, president of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance, approached District Ranger Bradford in the summer of 2006 with a proposal to lead a squad of volunteers in cleaning up and restoring the busted pot gardens in Los Padres. He’d worked with a volunteer crew doing similar work in the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests, where the patrol captain was grateful for it, so he figured his idea would be well received. Mounds of trash in the wilderness? Landscapes to be restored? For free? His crew had done it before.

VWA, a 7-year-old nonprofit, has 300 dues-paying members and about a dozen regular volunteers who put in thousands of hours of trail work per year, Hopkins boasts. A few years ago they hauled out more than 10,000 pounds of junk from a historic mining site on Willow Creek in Los Padres’ Monterey Ranger District. An appreciative Bradford presented the volunteers with a plaque of honor.

But after nine meetings with Bradford and one with Gould, Hopkins feels that his year-old proposal to lead VWA into the pot gardens is going nowhere. He hasn’t even been allowed to see one of the big, messy sites to assess the damage and formulate a clean-up plan. He senses that Bradford is receptive to letting volunteers do the neglected work, but that Gould – the ultimate decision-maker on this front – is being obdurate.

“No progress has been gained,” Hopkins says dolefully, trudging up a sunny stretch of bluff trail overlooking the ocean. “We’ve not been able to convince them that it’s an appropriate thing for volunteers to do. And yet it has to be done. It’s a lot of hard work, but there are people who want to do it. We need the cooperation of the Forest Service, and right now we don’t have it.”

Technically, he doesn’t actually need it. If his volunteers can figure out where the busted pot gardens are located – and Gould hasn’t closed any of the sites to the public – they can simply hike in and clean them up. But Hopkins says that if he’s going to lead his crew into potentially dangerous places, he wants the Forest Service to have his back.

Still, he’s getting impatient. Hopkins has been hiking Big Sur since the 1960s, and it pains him to think of trash festering on the public land he cherishes. So he’s trained his eye to spot outdoor pot.

Last spring, while surveying former pastureland near the border of Los Padres and Limekiln State Park, Hopkins noticed a PVC pipe snaking down a gully. He followed it to a little sinsemilla garden hidden in a grove of oak and bay trees and reported the site’s GPS coordinates to Bradford. This summer, he leads me there.

The ganja plants are barely noticeable, nestled demurely among poison oak and pampas grass. We find a water-filled Rubberneck-turned-cistern weighed down by a tire filled with rocks. Under a nearby oak, a couple of tarps cover a pile of irrigation equipment. A little creature makes scrabbling sounds underneath it.

This particular operation, Hopkins admits rather sheepishly, isn’t representative of the dramatic damage being done elsewhere. He wants me to know that the real deal is much worse. “This could be someone growing for his own use,” he says.

He points out an 18-inch marijuana plant encircled in wire mesh. I hadn’t noticed it before, but squatting down next to it, I can appreciate its form. Sunlight falls through the oak trees to illuminate the tiny hairs on its jagged leaves. Still a seedling, it hasn’t produced any bud or stink yet.

The sight of little Mary Jane makes Hopkins – a naturalist who had delighted over sticky monkey flower and sorrel on our hike here – frown. “We don’t take a position on the appropriateness of marijuana,” he says carefully, standing an arm’s length away from the plant. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to use public land for any agricultural enterprise, legal or illegal.”

~ ~ ~

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Adding to Hopkins’ vexation is the knowledge that another volunteer crew already cleans up busted pot gardens in other parts of the state.  

Around 2003, Kevin Mayer, patrol captain for the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests, approached High Sierra Volunteer Crew leader Shane Krogen to brief him on the problem. Krogen offered to help, and his crew of about 35 volunteers has been cleaning up trashed cannabis grows ever since.

The volunteers follow a set of common-sense safety rules, Krogen says. They work during the off-season for pot cultivation – from October to early April – with law enforcement escorts. The volunteers hike into the busted sites and pile up the garbage, usually over the course of three days, and Highway Patrol helicopters long-line it out.

Under a written agreement, medical care for any injuries sustained by the volunteers on the job are covered by the Forest Service, Mayer says. But so far, the worst injuries have been tick bites and poison oak rashes.

“We haven’t been shot at. We don’t find booby traps,” Krogen says nonchalantly. “These cartels do not want to draw attention to what they’re doing, and when you start harming people it brings down undue pressure upon them.”

Krogen emphasizes the difference between the industrial gardens of 5,000 or more plants and the mom-and-pop operations of a few hundred. His crew generally deals with the former. “The environmental impact of a 200 or 300 plant operation is almost nothing,” he says.

After cleaning up the trash, volunteers do minor restoration work such as filling in plant holes, removing plastic and sediment from stream channels, and re-directing brush to prevent erosion.

Krogen charges roughly $3,000 to $5,000 per cleanup for overhead costs such as food, fuel and paperwork, and the Forest Service supplies helicopters and support staff to haul out the trash. Krogen estimates, and Mayer agrees, that the agency would have to spend at least 10 times as much to do the same work with paid staff.

Krogen’s Fresno-based crew has done such impressive work in the Sierras that forest managers have invited them to clean up busted pot sites across the state. Last October, they completed a job at Castle Rock State Park near Santa Cruz.

“It’s hard for us to see why the same thing can’t be done in a National Forest in a local area,” says Hopkins, plodding back down the trail toward the highway. As we break out of a shady, dank redwood grove the ocean view opens before us like a new scene in a play. The effect makes me feel kinda high.

~ ~ ~

In reporting this story, I begin to share some of Hopkins’ frustrations with Gould. Over the course of eight weeks in communication, he is unable to schedule an in-person interview with me. We talk in sporadic bursts when I am able to catch him on his cell phone, but he won’t commit to taking me out to a busted pot site himself.

Frankly, he doesn’t seem keen on the idea of civilians poking around in pot fields. Even though Hopkins discovered and reported the garden bordering Limekiln – and submitted a detailed report of our subsequent visit there – Gould gets upset that we’d gone in without a police escort. “It’s lucky you didn’t get shot,” he tells me gruffly. “It’s not the way we do business.”

He has a point: Tromping around in illicit drug production scenes is a stupid thing for clueless civilians to do. But if the cleanup work can’t be done without a Forest Service escort, it’s hard to imagine it getting done at all. While I badgered him this summer, Gould shuffled between administrative marathons at the office, some of the season’s biggest forest fires, and a seemingly endless string of pot busts. He simply had other priorities.

Gould is taking his time with the idea of a volunteer marijuana garden cleanup crew, he says, because he wants to do it right. It’s not that he has anything against the volunteers. To the contrary: He relies on them to do trail and restoration work. “The Forest Service welcomes the volunteers,” he insists. He just wants them to be safe.  

 “We’re concerned about booby traps, we’re concerned about armed confrontation, we’re concerned about HAZMAT [hazardous materials] contamination. All that has to be documented,” he says by cell phone from the side of an undisclosed highway. “Safety is paramount.”

In hopes of creating a “well-organized, well-documented” operating plan, Gould says he’ll borrow pages from fellow Capt. Mayer’s playbook, adapting the Sierra team’s plan to the Los Padres cleanups. Krogen has even offered to train Hopkins’ crew.

 “I’m optimistic that it will happen,” Gould says. “My forecast is, by next year we will have an operating plan and we can start cleaning up site by site. Until then, the Forest Service is going to continue what we’re doing.”

~ ~ ~

Anytime a Californian loads up a bong with anonymously-grown outdoor weed, she takes a gamble on what she’s smoking.   

Might be pot that was responsibly cultivated. Might have been grown on a heavily eroded slope that choked up a steelhead spawning stream. Might be doused with rodenticides that poisoned voles and coyotes. Without a medical marijuana prescription, the average pothead has a hard time being an Earth-friendly consumer.

As long as recreational cannabis is criminalized and people are smoking it, it’ll be grown on public land, unregulated and under cover. Most of those operations will continue to generate trash that, left alone, poisons animals and elements.

Gould says that Forest Service employees were able to clean up fewer than three of the 17 pot gardens – totaling 83,000 plants – busted in Los Padres last year. “I’m sure that was just the tip of the iceberg,” he admits. “There’s probably twice as much out there that’s undetected.”

Even with a volunteer squad to help with the task, Mayer estimates that only about 25 percent of the Sierra-Sequoia’s busted pot gardens get cleaned up: “It’s a losing game at the moment.”

While bureaucrats hedge the issue and volunteers try their best to deal with the trash, stressed-out Americans continue to light up. And a growing network of stoner suppliers nibbles at the last remnants of our nation’s wilderness.

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