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Pot grows causing 'incredible environmental damage' throughout
By DON FRANCES Daily Democrat
Even in Yolo County, illegal marijuana growing operations are more prevalent - and much more destructive - than most people realize.
That's according to government officials tasked with cleaning up the messes left behind by pot growers.
At the Bureau of Land Management's Ukiah field office, Gary Sharpe estimates he's handled about 60 cleanups over the past five years at grow sites dotting the land his office oversees, including in Yolo County.
As one of his colleagues put it, entering sites ruined by pot grows is like "walking into hell." For Sharpe, a supervisory natural resources specialist, the torn-up land, redirected streams, piping, wiring, nets, tents and trash are awful to behold.
Perhaps worst of all is the countless gallons of chemicals - mostly pesticides and heavy fertilizers, many of which are banned in the United States - which Sharpe says leave their mark on the land and water long after the grow sites are gone.
"Just in the nutrients being added to the water courses, we're getting blue-green algae in the water," Sharpe said. "And that's a toxic algae. It is adding, I believe strongly, to the problems of nutrients in Clear Lake, and algae blooms there."
"And then of course you have all the impacts on the wildlife," Sharpe said. Animals get caught in the growers' netting, and fish are dying due to "drying-out creeks that have never been dry before."
The result is "incredible environmental damage," including in Yolo County, he said.
In the Cache Creek Wilderness area, "Yolo County is very steep and inaccessible. And these guys will go to great lengths."
Sharpe mentioned one grow site "above Rumsey, big complex that was raided there a couple years ago, with 25,000 plants. That's about a mile and quarter in and a 1,100-foot climb."
The growers, he said, "deliberately put them in difficult places to get to, they're living there on site. They're desperate to avoid anybody else getting up there."
Experienced hikers agree the problem is widespread. Andrew Fulks, president of Tuleyome, a Woodland-based environmental nonprofit, says he regularly comes across marijuana growing operations - both active and defunct - in the Putah Creek and Cache Creek watersheds.
In an email, Fulks wrote of "Amazing amounts of trash and pipe they pulled out from the Cache Creek Wilderness, which is where the farm water supply for Yolo County comes from. I've seen small grows near the creek banks being grown by hippies from the East Coast who thought it was legal here, to ravaged hillsides in the remote backcountry of the Cold Canyon Reserve where they had hand dug reservoirs and diverted tributary water to feed their grow."
Though he's never been a marijuana user, Fulks said he is "strongly in favor of legalization and regulation of it solely based on the destruction these illegal grows manifest on our public lands."
As a recent example, law enforcement officials raided a site in July west of Winters where 2,658 marijuana plants were found growing near the banks of Putah Creek. Two men were arrested.
BLM's Sharpe said he isn't a law enforcement official and doesn't participate in the raids. Rather, he finds out about them afterward, and begins organizing the difficult clean-up efforts.
"When I get to them they've already been raided, and they've been basically rendered inoperable by the raiding officers." That includes destroying much of the materials found there, "because the growers will come back and salvage what they can," he said.
Sharpe brings along sheriff's deputies to secure the site, and between two and 15 California Conservation Corps members for much of the work, which is paid for largely through grants. They clear brush, collect trash, dig up pipes, dismantle dams where the growers have dammed up creeks - and usually get it all done in a single day.
"We walk in and walk out," Sharpe explained. Sharpe also checks for hazardous materials, of which there is plenty due to the fertilizers and pesticides.
The biggest site he ever cleaned - in the Cache Creek Wilderness area in Lake County - had 44,000 plants, Sharpe said. In that case, the group was packed in by Backcountry Horsemen, and refuse hauled out by National Guard helicopter.
Mostly, he said, the sites he cleans are between 5,000 and 15,000 plants.
In Yolo County, Sharpe added, the sites are "so remote I've had trouble reaching them in a single day with a ground crew." In those cases, "I'm going to have to come in with the National Guard."
"That whole area has a number (of grow sites) that I've not been able to get to."
And that's just the BLM-owned land - 300,000 acres spanning nine counties between Willits and the Sacramento River southward to the San Francisco Bay. Sharpe estimates there are half a million plants growing illegally on BLM land in Lake County, and almost the same number in Mendocino County.
But he said the true scale of the environmental damage is almost impossible to know.
"Most people are completely unaware of the impacts," he said. "They have no idea it's as bad as it is."
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
‘Hit squad’ works to rid wild areas of invasive weeds
By Charlotte Orr
What kinds of plants are taking the heat this week? They’re non-native weeds like Ravenna grass, fennel, perennial pepperweed, medusa head, Arundo, tamarisk, barbed goatgrass, yellow star thistle and many others.
Characteristics of invasive plants include: plants that reproduce in large numbers, are tolerant of many soil types and weather conditions, are easily spread and grow very rapidly. Invasive plants like these put immense pressure on the environment. These species thrive in our region and they become aggressive, choking out other plant life, stealing water, and leaving the natural landscape transformed into an environment that is hostile to local wildlife populations. This is called “ecological impoverishment.”
Fulks started taking matters into his own hands in 2006, working with the Bureau of Land Management to eradicate invasive tamarisk and arundo plants on the upper wilderness section of Cache Creek. He calls his team of volunteers the “weed’yakers” since the only way to get to the weeds is to kayak down a 19-mile stretch of the Cache Creek wilderness run.
Each year, the weed’yakers cut down and remove the invasive weeds by hand and then treat the remaining stumps to keep them from reproducing.
“It is very rewarding work. We feel obligated as stewards of the land to protect the biology of the river,” Fulks said. “We are also fortunate to have cooperative agencies such as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the United States Bureau of Land Management supporting these weed eradication efforts.”
Kunze is taking a stand against invasive weeds in Napa County. With funding from the Coastal Conservancy and the help of hundreds of volunteers, invasive species such as star thistle and fennel are being removed and native wildlife habitat is being restored in the day use area located by the Pope Creek Bridge at Lake Berryessa.
So far, they have planted oak and pine trees from seedlings and acorns, silver lupin, toyon, Yerba Santa, coyote brush and more, plus some 1,500 native bunch grass plugs.
“Our volunteers enjoy watching the improvement in the wildlife habitat,” Kunze said. “We’re already seeing evidence that the native species we’ve planted are spreading.”
Next up on the Tuleyome Napa agenda is an invasive species inventory farther up Pope Creek, in an area invaded by tamarisk and Himalayan blackberry. The goal of this project is to assess the problem and develop a plan to eliminate the larger invasive plants over a 2.5-mile reach of the creek.
“Of all the multitudinous ways that invasive species can harm California, the one that concerns me most is ecological impoverishment,” Brandon said. “As citizens of a state that contains some of the most amazingly diverse habitats on the planet, we owe it to the future to steward those ecosystems in all their astonishing variety, by using environmentally sensitive, healthy methods to control invasive aliens that threaten the well-being of our native flora and fauna.”
Brandon also chairs the California Invasive Species Advisory Committee and is a director of the East Lake Resource Conservation District. Both organizations do educational outreach about invasive weeds and organize invasive cleanups throughout the region.
What can you do to help? Join the “invasive weeds hit squad”: learn to identify local invasive plants, remove invasive plants on your property and stop them from spreading, make others aware of invasive weeds, and volunteer with local efforts to remove these species from our public lands.
Tuleyome is a nonprofit regional conservation organization based in Woodland with an office in Napa. More information about Tuleyome’s efforts to remove invasive weeds can be found at www.tuleyome.org. Information on native plants to add to your garden or property can be found on the California Native Plant Society website at www.cnps.org.
Volunteers remove weeds from the Pope Creek Bridge at Lake Berryessa. Charlotte Orr/Courtesy photo