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Clandestine Pot Gardens Cause Ecological Damage

LdyLunatic

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SUMMIT -- Sheriff's patrol Sgt. Mark Yanez surveys the mess the pot farmers left behind: trash, empty propane tanks and gardening supplies. A blue jug of Power Force Multi Insect Killer and a paper sack with crumbly remains of ammonia sulfate are most damaging to the forest, he says.
The high-yield chemical fertilizer is "real bad for the creek," Yanez says.
Yanez will haul the pesticides and chemicals with him when he makes the 45-minute hike out Friday afternoon. But a camp stove, cans with Miracle-Gro residue, rat traps and miles of rubber irrigation tubing will stay, for now, on public land off Highland Way near Soquel Demonstration Forest.
"We try to clean it up the best we can, but there's not much we can do," Yanez said.
The sheriff's Marijuana Enforcement Team has destroyed about a dozen outdoor marijuana gardens this summer, and is on pace to uproot more plants than ever this year.
But Sgt. Steve Carney, leader of the three-man team, knows his crew's efforts will only slow the expanding problem on state and federal lands: marijuana-growing operations that deputies say are controlled by Mexican drug cartels.
The pot farms present a multitude of problems. Armed men camp nearby to defend the gardens, many of which are within a few minutes' walk of popular hiking trails. Most natural vegetation has been scraped off the steep hillsides to make room for thousands of marijuana plants, creating erosion and disrupting or destroying native species. The pot crops are fed amped-up fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides, deer repellent and rat poison that leech into the soil and water supply.
"It's pretty much like leaving a meth lab," Carney said.
The farms scar the environment. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers, for instance, can endanger or kill coastal steelhead and salmon before flowing into the open-ocean habitats of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Sediment eroding into creeks can cover the gravel needed by steelhead trout and coho salmon, an endangered species, to lay their eggs.
Four deputies found and felled 953 marijuana plants terraced into the rocky, sandstone hillside Friday afternoon. Two weeks ago, deputies snipped 6,900 plants in nearby gardens. The plants would have been ready for harvest in mid-September, had deputies not spotted them from a helicopter last month.
This growing season, from April to October, is shaping up to be the most prolific in county history. The sheriff's team has uprooted almost 30,000 plants from about a dozen gardens since spring. The biggest year so far -- back when Yanez headed the crew responsible for finding and destroying gardens on public land -- yielded more than 36,000 plants.
"I think, by next week, we'll exceed that," Carney said.
But after deputies find the gardens, most of the damage will not be addressed.
Deputies carry out what garbage they can. At the season's end, a National Guard program may have time and funding to use a helicopter and a large net to airlift the trash from abandoned planations out of the forests. Otherwise, there's little recourse.
"It costs a lot of money for the county to hire a cleanup crew and do this," detective Cesar Ramirez said.
A plantation in Castle Rock State Park that deputies uprooted earlier this summer is slated for rehabilitation.
A crew from High Sierra Volunteer Trail Group based in Fresno will haul up trash, pull up irrigations lines and cover the bare soil with leaves and other natural vegetation.
Volunteers from the group have rehabilitated gardens in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and will probably need three days to repair the damage in Castle Rock. Their work would cost between $20,000 and $40,000 if the government had to pay for it, said group founder and director Shane Krogen.
"It needs to be taken care of," Krogen said.
Estimates vary, but it will be years before the forest lands used to cultivate marijuana will return to normal, even with help from groups such as the High Sierra volunteers.
"It's scary," Krogen said. "Mother Nature, she heals herself, but it takes a long time,"
Friday, deputies chop down the 3- to 6-foot plants and toss them to the bottom of the 15-foot-wide garden carved into the hillside. The wilting, iridescent green sprigs pile onto dead sage brush. Loose rocks that have tumbled down the sparsely vegetated hillside are kicked and tossed on top.
The men -- five or more -- who tended the crops escaped, and the land will need years to recover, but marijuana that would have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars has been destroyed.
It's a victory in a battle law enforcement officials know they'll never win.
"By us coming out here, it probably just manages the problem," Carney said. "Otherwise, each year it would probably just keep getting bigger and bigger."
 

Hick

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thanks Ldy for another great news article.
 

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