Unregulated Cannabis Wreaks Foothills Destruction in California

Unregulated Cannabis Wreaks Foothills Destruction in California

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In the wilds of Butte County's foothills, where I live on an off-grid ridge, there used to be semi-abundant wildlife: skunks, raccoons, coyotes, bear. It was impossible to raise chickens on this ridge; the predators could break through any security system.

When I took my daily walks years ago, I would always see signs of deer. I saw a mountain lion once. Turkey vultures hung out on our ridge. Eagles. Osprey. I had the thrill of watching a bobcat capture one of our chickens. Quail were everywhere. Signs of skunk, possum and raccoon left animal-track interstates in the dust. When I walked, I'd see bear scat strategically placed on flat rocks, marking territory.

Then pot took over.

A so-called 'Green Rush' in Northern California's foothill counties is exacting as hard a toll as the 1849 Gold Rush did. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 marijuana grows in the Butte County foothills alone. Think about that for a moment: 3,000 to 5,000 grows.

Now, gunshots ring out at night. Fences have gone up everywhere. New roads have gone in, with neon "No Trespassing" signs posted as warnings to those who might be out for a hike. An armada of trailers has moved in to house the growers, none with septic systems. Bulldozers and backhoes have terraced canyon walls in an attempt to make cheap land a platform for cannabis cultivation. The ill-constructed terraces will silt up trout streams and destroy amphibian riparian life for years to come. And what used to make this area interesting — the wildlife — well, most species have been extirpated.

Commercial marijuana growers in Butte County are working to gather 7,500 signatures by a March 11 deadline and delay implementation of a new ordinance — passed unanimously by the county supervisors — that would dramatically limit garden space and reduce environmental devastation to the sensitive eco-system of these foothills. Should the well-funded growers be successful in gathering the signatures, the issue will be placed on the ballot in November. In the meantime, the growers will continue to reap the large profits the old law allows.

People started growing marijuana commercially and in earnest on this ridge after a 2008 fire cleared out enough forest for the sun-loving cannabis plants to thrive — with the help of imported soil, herbicides and fertilizers. Most plants are grown in raised beds, widely spaced to reach heights of 10 feet and widths of 6 feet. They look like very large Christmas trees.

Greying baby boomers might imagine a hippy dippy, back-to-the-lander peace-loving Woodstock devotee, growing a bit of bud for self and friends. Or patients. Some of those fossils still exist, and we should leave them alone. But the reality is that cannabis production has become big business, with clubs from Los Angeles and Sacramento and individual cannabis entrepreneurs buying or renting available land to put in their 'Green Gold.'

It makes sense that the growers would move in here, given there is easier access to population centers like Sacramento and San Francisco than from places like Humboldt County. And some county governments have wised up to the destruction: Supervisors in Shasta County, one of the most beautiful wild areas left in California, have limited outdoor grows, although their ordinance is also being challenged by a petition drive. The largest migratory deer herd in California, the Tehama herd, has probably been saved due to the efforts of cattlemen and strict marijuana laws next door in Tehama County.

The Butte County foothills present some of the best wildlife habitat left in the 1,000 to 4,000-foot elevations in California. Most wild space usually can be characterized as being either rock or ice; the foothills are an exception. Most of California's remaining wildlife reside in the foothills in that narrow-elevation sweet spot.

But when one plant can hold 4 pounds of premium bud, and that bud will sell for $1,500 a pound, you have plants worth $6,000. Do you think any deer that comes close to the bud won't be killed, just in case? Or bear? What about a human? What should be a ridge of get-away cabins and retirement country cottages has turned into working plantations of Green Gold. The population pressure, the poaching, the poisoning, the fences — all have either killed the wildlife, or forced them to move on.

Wherever cheap drug money is to be made, anti-social personalities and felons abound. Two murders last year in the foothills. Sexual assaults have become common. You'd expect that to occur where land is cheap, road access is easy and cannabis-growing rules are lax and not enforced. Money is on everyone's minds. Greed motivates. One telling story is the guy who traded a 20-foot trailer for an assault rifle. Gosh, I wonder why the guy couldn't buy the rifle at a gun shop.

Of 69 grows checked by the Butte County Sheriff's Department in 2013, 66 were out of compliance. Butte County Sheriff's detectives tell me they spend from August to November processing violent marijuana crimes in the foothills.

And so I wrote a piece describing what is going on for a local newspaper. I went on an environmentalist radio show to describe what is happening. I joined BSANE (Butte County Safe Access, Not Excess!), a group of residents upset with the Green Rush. I threw my support to the Butte County supervisors who have passed an ordinance to limit the size of the gardens — a good law that just might bring back the wildlife and end the exploitation and the crime.

That doesn't make me popular in this neighborhood. We worry for our safety given my outspokenness regarding the environmental destruction. After all, these growers carry guns and their livelihoods are on the line. But dammit, there isn't much room left for the Pacific fisher or the ring-tailed cat. Or the mountain lion or the gray fox. Our migratory deer are in trouble.

Marijuana is the rage, the politically-correct drug. I hope it is legalized. Then Monsanto can come in and grow the nation's pot in about 18,000 acres on the valley floor. And then, maybe, the foothills can go back to providing habitat, water and recreation for human and non-human Californians.

As an early birthday present for myself, I bought a Trail Cam — a trail camera equipped with motion and heat detectors. I've had the camera mounted 5 feet up on a pine tree a couple of nights now, and all I've managed to capture are photos of myself. Tomorrow I will go check my Trail Cam again, in hopes that I'll find some evidence that these pot plantations haven't scared or killed off everything wild in my neighborhood.

Allan Stellar is a freelance writer who publishes the blog, "Paradise from my Porch."