Where I Stand: Stopping the silent killer

By Jackee Riccio 

Regional Field Director for the CROP Project

There is a silent killer stalking the National Forests and BLM lands of California. It cares nothing for the fish and wildlife that call it home. It poisons wildlife on a landscape scale, contaminates public water supplies, and if you are not careful, will poison you as well.

Cartel-operated trespass cannabis grows are toxic dumps in remote, pristine habitats. They divert streams to the point of depletion, use EPA-banned pesticides that poison wildlife, water, and soil, and leave tons of trash in sensitive ecosystems. They contain plastic irrigation lines, strewn trash, makeshift water reservoirs, propane tanks, primitive camps, and planted cannabis, especially in burn scars or other exposed habitats.

The issue of trespass grows has flown under the radar for years. Hidden away, illicit growers use banned pesticides to protect their plants, poisoning wildlife and users alike. The northern population of Pacific fishers, a candidate species for the ESA, now tests over 80 percent positive for rodenticides (rat poisons)—a poison in heavy use at trespass grows. Northern Spotted Owls—an ESA-listed species—test 70 percent positive for the same poisons. Even game species have tested positive, including mule deer. Incredibly, trespass growers will even bait fishing hooks with poisoned meat to kill foraging wildlife. The amount of wildlife poisoned by pesticides shows how it has bioaccumulated through the food web, leading to major ecosystem implications. Furthermore, those toxics are sometimes weaponized by growers to target law enforcement, and can readily poison unsuspecting hikers. Until recently, it was “out of sight, out of mind.” That is now over.

Federal appropriations requests for reclamation and prevention championed by Congressmen Huffman (CD-2) and LaMalfa (CD-1) are now under review in Congress, and will hopefully be approved in the coming months. The requests could mean as much as $25million/year to address this seemingly intractable problem. A further request was submitted under the COVID-19 stimulus plan for “shovel ready” projects, which includes reclamation. If approved, the reclamation funding would: (1) provide economic opportunity for Northern California’s rural, economically disadvantaged communities, keeping the funding and jobs local; (2) increase USFS law enforcement on California’s federal lands to preclude new grows from being established, and (3) prioritize tribal reclamation partners, furthering their participation in the management and clean-up of their ancestral territory and protection of cultural resources.

The Cannabis Removal On Public Lands (CROP) Project, working to address this issue since 2017, significantly raised the profile of this issue through national press in 2019 and has been integral to congressional action. True to its bi-partisan nature, CROP is a broad-based coalition of scientists, elected county officials, conservation interests, state and federal agencies, tribes, the legal cannabis industry, and USFS law enforcement. Now, CROP’s mission to remove and prevent trespass grows is bearing fruit, and presenting an opportunity for regional collaboration between diverse, and sometimes polarized, interests to reclaim public lands. The CROP Project, now expanding out of the Emerald Triangle into Siskiyou, Shasta and Lassen counties, looks forward to working with interests to solve this problem.

In the meantime, hikers and recreational users of California’s public lands need to exercise extreme caution should they come across a trespass grow. Public land users that stumble upon a trespass grow should immediately and discretely leave the scene, preferably going out the same way you came in (most growers are armed). Remember the location of the site, and immediately report it to 1-888-334-CALTIP (888-334-2258), the anonymous environmental crime tip-line for CDFW.

To learn more about CROP, or how to support it, visit www.cropproject.org

Jackee Riccio is the Regional Field Director for the CROP Project, and resides in Humboldt County.

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