Redwood National and State Parks, California (Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Will unlicensed marijuana cultivation hurt California’s redwoods?

Eco-activists worry that semi-legal and illegal marijuana grows may undermine the environmental activism that has long fought to preserve the redwoods as a natural resource.

A new industry is thriving in California. It is green in terms of the money being made and the crop itself. Yet it is anything but that when it comes to the environment, posing horrendous ecological threats to the region’s redwood forests.

Lindgren Lumber and Humboldt Flakeboard are the newest additions to the Medical Marijuana Innovation Zone, an area in Arcata, California, zoned specifically for marijuana cultivation and processing. As businesses like Humboldt Harvest Wellness and Talking Tree Farms apply for the necessary permits to process cannabis in the former mill complex, it is evident that the cannabis business may restore the economy of redwood country.

But this new industry might also undermine the environmental activism that has long fought to preserve the redwoods as a natural resource.

Not long ago, activists thought they had won this fight. And they had – until now. They successfully dislodged corporate logging, but the old timber mills are being used to churn out marijuana. Marijuana cultivation subjects North Coast forests to a barrage of environmental assaults: soil erosion, heavy pesticide use, stream diversion, irresponsible grading and land clearing, all of which threaten to lay waste to the redwoods.

As marijuana businesses repurpose Arcata’s remaining lumber mills, a renewed ecological peril haunts Humboldt County. Just like timber companies in decades past, marijuana interests are positioning themselves to shape regulations that protect the industry, not the environment. Americans only have to look back a few decades to the activism that saved the redwoods to understand just how high the stakes are.

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Precipitating the “timber wars,” that activism began when logging companies expanded operations during the post-World War II housing boom. Timber yields exploded between 1940 and 1970, and increased demand led logging companies to clear-cut large swaths of North Coast redwood forest. This practice had broad ramifications. Leveling a patch of forest compromised entire watersheds by eroding soil and increasing siltation in streams, which left forests vulnerable to flooding, landslides and myriad other environmental problems.

Efforts at redwood preservation proved ineffective when protected groves were surrounded by denuded land. Consequently, environmental advocates intensified their push to create an expansive national park in Northern California that would protect the redwoods from the damage caused by clear-cutting.

By 1968, the Redwood National Park Act established a federal park that protected 58,000 acres of forest. Preservationists had originally proposed acquiring 90,000 acres to ensure the ecological stability of the region, but fierce resistance from timber companies forced a compromise. Yet because environmental impacts were not confined by man-drawn property lines, this compromise meant clear-cuts on nearby private property ended up threatening protected redwood stands anyway.

Activists requested the National Park Service exercise its discretionary power to create a buffer zone around sensitive groves. Three separate studies confirmed the grave ecological hazards presented by nearby logging operations.

NPS, though, was new to the area, and hoped to avoid making waves as it worked to integrate itself into the community. As a result, jobs and the local economy trumped ecological health. NPS took an approach that empowered private interests, adopting a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis that overrode preservationist policy.

Increased harvests led to new logging roads, clear-cut sites, stream diversion and, perhaps most shocking, aerial spraying of Agent Orange, a herbicide known to contain carcinogens. Roads and clear-cuts interrupted the ecosystem and directly threatened wildlife habitat. Road-building itself led to erosion and presented dangers for aquatic life. The use of Agent Orange compounded these problems not only by poisoning habitats, but also by destroying the roots and undergrowth that stabilized the forest floor.

Nevertheless, passing legislation to protect additional old growth proved difficult because of the political might of corporations like Maxxam, a multinational conglomerate that muscled its way into Humboldt’s timber industry during the redwood wars. Activists spent years fighting to save remaining old-growth redwood stands. Finally, the Clinton administration brokered a deal to preserve sensitive groves.

But the victory was short-lived. Although the timber industry fell, a robust pot industry soon sprouted in its place. This was not the same pot industry once concentrated in small, personal gardens and largely associated with hippies, back-to-the-landers and other counterculture migrants. The growing popularity of pot, along with increasing legalization, has turned marijuana cultivation into big business. And despite its reputation as a liberal bastion, California left regulation to local authorities.

The result is a tangled web of lenient laws. Despite the liberalization of marijuana laws in the state, semi-legal and illegal cultivation persists. Marijuana’s illegality elsewhere continues to fuel a robust black market. Intending to sell on this market, pot farmers interested in a cash crop have little incentive to seek permits or comply with regulations. In any case, the odd dichotomy under which marijuana is legal in California, but illegal under federal law, makes it hard to enforce regulations as local officials find themselves at odds with federal agencies.

At best, pot farmers loosely adhere to regulations while they operate in a legal gray area. At worst, inconsistent enforcement encourages illegal cultivation – which poses serious environmental consequences as these grow sites often contain banned pesticides and other toxic contaminants.

And that creates real environmental hazards. According to Rep. Jared Huffman, a Democrat, authorities have removed 8,188 pounds of fertilizer, 104 pounds of rodenticide, 560 gallons of insecticide, 50 gallons of garbage and miles of irrigation line from illegal grow sites on the North Coast.

Perhaps the most detrimental contaminant making its way into the forests is carbofuran, a toxic pesticide banned in the United States. These pesticides leach into streams and other waterways, increasing their deadly reach. Chemical runoff from grow sites poisons swimming holes and has the potential to seep into city water supplies, which is alarming because carbofuran is lethal to humans in small doses. Ecologists have also determined that chemicals are endangering wildlife such as the Pacific fisher and the northern spotted owl.

In addition to the impact from toxins, the water usage demanded by marijuana cultivation does serious ecological harm. A marijuana plant requires around 22.7 liters of water a day. Unregulated cultivation can easily deplete surface water sources as farmers divert streams and springs.

Water isn’t the only resource that pot devours. The plants require lots of sun, which encourages farmers to clear grow sites of trees and plants that might compete with cannabis for light. Satellite imaging has revealed the alarming rate at which these clearings are breaking up otherwise continuous forest. And grow sites require access, which means additional land is cleared and improperly graded as rogue farmers build roads.

All of these changes in the land accrue: Forest and other habitat is fragmented, streams are buried, diverted or polluted, and wildlife dies.

These trends are disturbing. California produces 60 to 70 percent of the marijuana consumed in the United States, which means the state is shouldering most of the environmental cost. As one study of the North Coast indicates, the danger from marijuana cultivation is particularly concerning because the “region is a recognized biodiversity hotspot.” The redwoods constitute an ecosystem that is unique and rare – and now marijuana cultivation even poses a threat to Redwood National Park.

Proposition 64 legalized recreational sales of marijuana in California beginning in January 2018, further encouraging large-scale marijuana farming and probably raising demand, which will exacerbate the environmental impact. A recent study indicated that legal marijuana cultivation may end up proving more environmentally harmful than the timber industry practices of years past.

And just like logging interests, organizations such as the California Growers Association and the California Cannabis Industry Association are already building political capital. The industry is making important political allies, too. Former House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, sits on the board of Acreage Holdings, one of the largest cannabis corporations in the United States.

If strong regulations aren’t enacted soon, it might be too late to protect the environment from this latest industrial threat, as the redwood forests quite literally go to pot.