Marijuana grows that damage environment facing new law in Nevada County |

Marijuana grows that damage environment facing new law in Nevada County

Keri Brenner
Staff Writer

Nevada County Environmental Health Specialist Dave Slaughter examines garbage and potential sources of chemicals while evaluating the site of an illegal cartel grow for clean-up in August 2013 as Nevada County Sheriff's Sgt. Guy Selleck, the head of the Narcotics Task Force, looks on.

Nevada County environmentalists, faith-based groups, anti-drug activists and political leaders are pushing for a hearing on "The Plant Act," a bill in Congress to punish illegal marijuana growers who trespass on private and public lands and destroy them.

"This is all about bootleggers, the industrial growers who destroy the place, rape the environment and leave," said Don Bessee of Alta Sierra. "It would not affect legitimate growers of medical marijuana."

Bessee said he has so far garnered support from the International Faith-based Coalition, Sierra Club, local Republicans and the steering committee for a Drug-Free Nevada County.

"We are building a nonpartisan coalition," Bessee said.

“No matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on

— environmentalist to conservative

— everybody is concerned about what the drug traffickers are doing to the environment.”
Sheriff Keith Royal

Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal said his state organization has not yet taken an official position on "The Plant Act," or H.R. 2735. However, he said he was aware of it and supports the concept.

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"No matter what side of the political spectrum you're on — environmentalist to conservative — everybody is concerned about what the drug traffickers are doing to the environment," Royal said.

He said the traffickers clear-cut the timber, divert waterways, spray pesticides and put out poison for animals — and leave all their debris and garbage on the land.

"We've seen it all," he said.

Nevada County typically has several large "gardens" — or areas where the illegal growers are operating — every year, Royal added.

An August 2013 raid on such a grow on private land near Bowman Lake was a near-perfect example of the undesirable impacts such operations can have on the county's vital watersheds. The Nevada County Sheriff's Narcotics Task Force raided the grow, finding approximately 3,000 plants.

The growers who had been onsite had fled, leaving behind a campsite littered with debris and substantial environmental degradation to the land and a creek that runs through the area.

The grow was on very steep terrain with thick undergrowth and had been terraced with drip irrigation running to every plant.

The plants were being watered by a gravity-fed system that involved two reservoirs diverting water from a stream and that had fertilizer dumped into them.

The bill, currently in the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, is being sponsored by U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who represents Nevada County, and several other Northern California congressmen. On Jan. 29, LaMalfa and others sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee requesting a hearing.

"There are areas of California that are no longer safe for the public to enjoy," said LaMalfa's legislative analyst, Kevin Eastman. "These people who are the (trespass) growers are dangerous individuals who are often armed."

In November, LaMalfa requested that the U.S. Sentencing Commission update federal sentencing guidelines to address the bootleggers' offenses to the environment and to public health.

The commission on Jan. 17 published proposed amendments in the Federal Register.

March 18 is the deadline for public comment on the proposed amendments.

Currently there are no specific or direct penalties on the books, aside from related rules such as state waterway regulations, Eastman said.

"We'll look at any and all avenues to increase penalties for illicit marijuana growers who trespass on Forest Service and private properties," Eastman said. "They have a pretty clear track record of causing major damage and cleanup expenses."

He added that the damages range from leaving garbage and pesticides to diverting streams and clear-cutting timber.

According to the Jan. 29 letter from LaMalfa to the Judiciary Committee:

"A single 2011 law enforcement operation in Mendocino National Forest located 56 marijuana cultivation sites and removed 23 tons of trash, over half a ton of fertilizer, 57 pounds of pesticides and herbicides, 22 miles of irrigation piping and 13 man-made dams."

Eastman said that "unfortunately, government or property owners get stuck with the cost of cleanup."

To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email or call 530-477-4239.

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