In 32 years working for the U.S. Forest Service, I have seen the Northwest’s national forests face various threats, from the eruption of Mount St. Helens to the drought of 1977. Today, our forests face a threat that generates wildfires, deforestation, pollution and wildlife poisoning: illegal marijuana grow operations tied to international drug cartels. In both 2010 and 2011, law enforcement found over 90,000 of their marijuana plants in Oregon’s national forests, and thousands more doubtless escaped detection. Our national forests face an epidemic of marijuana cultivation from the Siskiyou to the Wallowa-Whitman.
Many voters know that Measure 91, on the ballot this November, would regulate, tax and legalize marijuana sales to adults 21 and older. But Measure 91 is also the most effective step we can take to reduce the environmental impact from illegal growing operations in our public forests. Since Measure 91 would permit licensed marijuana farms to supply the legal market at lower cost, the legal supply would gradually replace the illegal supply from operations in our national forests.
Drug cartels recruit low-income workers with promises of high wages and mentions of tree planting jobs, not marijuana. Once in the forests, workers are trained, supplied and armed. They are then criminals, facing 10 to 15 years in federal prison if caught. While taxpayers pay $300,000 to incarcerate a single grower, the cartels have no trouble recruiting replacement workers.
The growers hide in remote areas of the forests, generating plenty of flammable slash as they clear trees for their grows. They use generators, car batteries, pumps and stoves. They are concerned with avoiding detection and staying out of prison, not taking precautions against forest fires. Between 2006 and 2011, illegal growers in California started wildfires that burned 93,535 acres at a cost of $35 million.
Growers have every incentive to maximize their harvest at the expense of wildlife. They draw water from nearby creeks and rivers and pollute them with chemicals. These are the water sources from which we catch steelhead and salmon for our families to eat. Growers also douse plants with rodenticides that kill rodents and their predators, including the Pacific fisher and Northern spotted owl. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researcher found that in forests near marijuana grow sites, 80 percent of fishers and 40 percent of owls tested positive for rodenticide.
The cartels are taking advantage of a perfect storm of events: high prices for marijuana, pressure on urban indoor grows from increasingly aggressive law enforcement and an unprotected expanse of public lands. Federal forests are especially vulnerable because decades of layoffs have left the forests without “boots on the ground,” people to watch for illegal activity.
Unlike wildfires, this epidemic of illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands is not something that we must endure. If marijuana were regulated like tobacco, nobody would be growing marijuana in our forests. With legalization, licensed marijuana farms would put cartel operations out of business.
Our national forests belong to all of us. They are a magnificent gift passed down from previous generations. We need to take care of these forests for future generations. Let’s pass Measure 91 and get the cartels off our land.
Rich Fairbanks of Jackson County, Ore., worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 32 years, mostly as a firefighter and fire prevention. For the last two years he taught fire behavior to inmate fire crews.