With great fanfare, Gov. Jerry Brown, and Assemblyman Jim Wood announced that the Governor’s new state budget allocates 1.5 million dollars of state funds to clean up environmental damage caused by illegal marijuana grows here in the Emerald Triangle, aka Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity Counties. Jerry Brown got it right when he said “These illegal grow sites do untold damage to forests and wildlife along the North Coast.”

Anyone who walks in the woods around here can see the legacy of environmental destruction from 40-plus years of illegal marijuana production. These forests are strewn with everything from irrigation line, soil bags and butane canisters, to fertilizers, pesticides and rat poison, to generators, appliances and vehicles, and what you find in these woods will boggle your imagination. I’ve seen trucks, bulldozers and mobile homes wedged into narrow crevices on steep slopes deep in the forest, far from the nearest road. I don’t know how they got there and I have no idea how you would get them out.

In his press release, Assemblyman Wood brought up some of the problems they hope to address with this $1.5 million: Banned pesticides, rat poison, fisheries restoration, chemical ponds, excavation pits, trash, generators, storage tanks, abandoned weapons and illegal clearcuts that create a fire hazard, “All of this creates a dangerous environment for firefighters, law enforcement and recreational hikers.” Wood’s press release informs us.

True enough, but how much will $1.5 million really do? Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowan told Ashley Tressel of the Ukiah Daily Journal, “It’s a nice start, but it’s really a drop in the bucket.” adding, “Frankly, state agencies have not been doing a good job of preventing environmental damage.” There, Supervisor McCowan refers to the explosion of new, large scale, illegal grows that have proliferated now that Mendocino County has refocused it’s energy away from marijuana eradication and onto bringing cannabis permit applicants into compliance with state and county regulations.

With the exponential growth in the industry of late, the large-scale, illegal clear-cuts, grading and water diversions going on right now, under legalization, may well dwarf the entire environmental legacy of the War on Drugs. Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal said he hoped to use Humboldt County’s share of this money to hire three new deputies to the Humboldt County Marijuana Task Force, presumably to stop the environmental destruction that is going on right now. “We need more resources and more deputy sheriffs dedicated to these illegal grows,” Honsal told Will Houston of the Eureka Times-Standard.

However, diverting this money to law enforcement would leave the environmental legacy of the War on Drugs, the unopened buckets of rat poison, the jugs of used motor oil, the leaky diesel tanks, the dams, the stream diversions and the storage ponds, to wreak havoc on wildlife for decades to come.

It remains unclear how the money will be allocated among the three counties. “These funds will go to our well-established Fisheries Restoration Grant Program which was created to address declining populations of wild salmon and steelhead trout, and deteriorating fish habitat in California,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton H. Bonham. “The $1.5 million will help us continue to clean up the egregious environmental damage, specifically to California’s waterways, caused by illegal marijuana cultivation sites.”

How far will $1.5 million go? “It can cost up to $15,000 to clean up and restore each acre damaged,” according to State Senator Bill Monning. I’m quoting the senator from a 2015 LA Times article by Patrick McGreevy about new (at the time), civil penalties that could compel busted growers to cover the cost of the environmental damage they cause. I’m sure the cost to clean up an acre has not gone down any since then. At that rate, this new, $1.5 million dollar allocation will clean up about 100 acres. 100 acres!

Thanks to the ongoing insanity of the War on Drugs, we have over 8,000 active marijuana grows in Humboldt County alone, not to mention tens of thousands of abandoned grow sites in the forest. Mendocino and Trinity Counties have similar situations. In this vast expanse of rugged, remote, mountainous forest, cops and cultivators have played a high stakes game of cat and mouse for more than forty years, littering some of California’s best remaining wildlife habitat with poison and trash.

Today, highly capitalized interests run roughshod over regulations and ignore environmental consequences in their quest to corner the market in this newly legalized industry. Meanwhile counties scale back law enforcement and turn marijuana violations over to code enforcement, who attempt to implement regulations and issue permits. We see unprecedented and unmitigated environmental damage from marijuana cultivation going on all over the Emerald Triangle right now, but thanks to assemblyman Wood’s “leadership”, the state is going to clean up 100 acres in three huge counties.

It’s a good thing they put out a press release about this $1.5 million. Otherwise no one would have ever noticed the impact of such a tiny investment spread over such an enormous area. 


John Hardin writes at Like You’ve Got Something Better to Do.