KLAMATH FOREST, Calif. — It's been a problem for years but is reaching a critical level: people growing illegal drugs in our country’s forests.
These grows cause environmental damage that destroys plants and kills animals. In the northernmost national forest in California, a team of conservationists and U.S. Forest Service rangers are teaming up to tackle this problem and eradicate these harmful grow sites.
“We have this amazing, abundant wildlife, nature up here," said U.S. Forest Service Ranger Chris Magallon.
It's a sacred space Magallon swore to defend.
"Our duty is to protect our national forests and our public lands and preserve it for future generations. That's what drives us to be up here," said Magallon.
But in many places, the forest is being poisoned by illegal marijuana grows.
Rangers identify the plots. Some are abandoned. Some are active with armed cultivators. And then, once the people behind the operation scatter or are arrested, the cleanup begins.
The growers hike in or build everything they need for a few months at a time.
"I've seen all kinds of everything from they make their own kind of flush toilet out there," said Magallon. "I've seen gym equipment they made using wood for barbells. I’ve seen where they had a poker table set up."
Magallon said the teams have also found everything from firearms to children's toys.
Every camp is full of hundreds of pounds of trash.
"These individuals have decided to grow in the national forest, in our public lands for no other purpose other than greed," said Magallon. "This greed that they have has caused extreme and horrific environmental and ecological damage."
Growing these plants takes much away from this land. Clean water is siphoned off through thin black irrigation tubes. The growers tap into the pristine headwaters of the Klamath National Forest.
Dr. Mourad Gabriel, a wildlife ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, said millions of gallons of water inside the national forest have been stolen for these grows.
"It's a theft. This is actively, publicly stealing the public's waterways," said Dr. Gabriel. "You're talking millions of gallons of water that are being taken annually. Now, that's a huge impact during a drought season when water is so precious for municipalities, indigenous tribes, public use, and even firefighting."
Greta Wengert is the Executive Director of the Integral Ecology Research Center and works as a conservationist with the Forest Service during these reclamation efforts. She said some pesticides used at these grows are not even legal in the U.S. She said many of them are legal and manufactured in Mexico and are brought to Northern California from the southern border.
"This stuff is so toxic that even just a quarter teaspoon can kill an adult black bear," said Wengert. "So, you know, sometimes we'll go out and we'll see little tuna can containers that have just a little bit of this pink residue, and it's out there specifically to kill animals."
The growers do this to protect the marijuana and themselves from predators.
"And that's heartbreaking. It's sad to see the animals that are dead. It's sad to see the water diversions. It's sad to see the chemicals. It's heartbreaking, and so that's what makes it so important," said Magallon.
Once the site is clean, the trash must be removed. The team can either hike it out of the site or use a helicopter. The helicopter is also the only method of accessing some grow sites that are too treacherous to hike into.
The helicopter is equipped with a line to drop the team in and to lift trash out.
Just this year, they’ve cleared nearly two dozen illegal grow sites. Since 2018, the team has reclaimed 48 illegal grow sites in the Klamath National Forest.
"It angered me to know that the American public lands are sort of under siege from this, but it's also energizing," said Wengert. "We're all determined to make it right."
They’ve removed more than 17,500 pounds of garbage and hazardous chemicals, yet the U.S. Forest Service does not receive additional funding for these reclamation projects. The rangers have diverted resources from other projects to make these cleanups happen.
"We are in the middle of nowhere. We don't have the resources. We don't have the funding, but we're here and we work together as a team," said Magallon.
"These lands that we're managing as an agency are here for the conservation, for not just this generation, but future generations," said Dr. Gabriel. "And so when these individuals are utilizing this land without even the agency, congressmen, or the public's permission, it's an impact that spans not just acutely in upcoming years, but we're seeing impacts that potentially can span decades-long."
Magallon said this work is something he will continue as long as he can because this land is meant to be safe and meant to be clean for all of us.
"This is not about cannabis. This is about our environment and about protecting our environment and making it safe so a family can enjoy their public lands," said Magallon.