By ANDREW NORMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — Marijuana farms spreading like weeds on public park and forest lands exact environmental costs that include poisoned land and water and poached wildlife.
Long present in western states, Mexican drug trafficking organizations are expanding east to the Great Lakes region, cultivating their illegal crops near large consumer bases like Detroit, law enforcement experts say.
Authorities seized more than 7.5 million marijuana plants grown outdoors on more than 20,000 sites in 2008 across the country, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Marijuana farms were found in 61 national forests across 16 states in 2009, up from 49 forests in 10 states in 2008.
What illegal growers add and subtract from these public lands is an equation that endangers entire forest ecosystems, the public, law enforcement officials and growers themselves.
Marijuana production on federal land has been a problem since officials discovered the first farm in California’s Sequoia National Park in 1998.
Now increased border security after Sept. 11, 2001, makes it more difficult to smuggle marijuana into the United States. Therefore, growing grass on secluded public lands avoids the risk of discovery during border crossings, with the added financial benefit of proximity to primary consumer markets.
Taxpayers pay much of the cost to clean up sites, sometimes as much as $1 million for a single site, experts say. The long-term detriment to the environment is harder to calculate.
Michigan’s marijuana eradication program found 38,000 outdoor plants in 2008 ― more than in any of the previous six years that Detective 1st Lt. David Peltomaa of the State Police has run the program called HEMP, or Help Eliminate Marijuana Planting. But he says his team, operating primarily in helicopters, doesn’t find even half of the state’s grow sites.
In 2009, HEMP eliminated 31,055 outdoor plants — 6,854 on public lands. Peltomaa attributes the decrease to cooler, wetter weather that limited flight time and kept people indoors.
State Police also attack plants that grow wild, such as one that “had been planted by someone, not the landowner, that then went wild,” Peltomaa said. “It’s on private property over several acres and we’ve made steady progress eliminating it.”
Enforcement is tough. The national forest system includes 193 million acres patrolled by only 535 law enforcement officers, according to the Forest Service.
Michigan has three national forests—Huron-Manistee in the northern Lower Peninsula and Hiawatha and Ottawa in the Upper Peninsula, each with about 1 million acres.
Michigan also has an extensive system of state forests, and they, too, have hosted pot farms. For example, several suspects connected with a Mexican drug cartel were arrested in 2008 after a hunter discovered a marijuana field in Gladwin County, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
Peltomaa says forests are ideal for clandestine farms because many areas never see anybody walking through them.
“You’re talking about thousands of acres of forests, and the plots can be in less than a half-acre,” he says. “Unless you’re flying right over it, you’re not going to see it.”
Although marijuana is a weed that can grow just about anywhere, there’s little natural about how farmers grow highly potent strains of the plant.
For example, growers may chop down all but a few trees, leaving enough canopy to shield the site from the air, while allowing sunlight to reach the plants. They thin the shorter vegetation and ring the site with brush and chopped logs to keep deer from their plants and bears from their camps.
They scrape off ground cover that protects the forest floor from erosion. They dig holes about every 10 inches and plant seedlings often transported to the site in plastic containers.
Water is key, and growers go to great lengths to get it.
For example, they may run drip lines ― rubber or PVC piping ― from a water source like a stream for irrigation or divert streams to the plants, breaking down banks and causing erosion.
They set traps and use poison ― some banned in the United States. ― to keep insects, rodents, raccoons, rabbits and skunks from eating the plants. The poison can move up the food chain to animals eaten by humans, officials say.
They’ll kill “rabbits, game birds, deer ― whatever they happen to come upon,” Peltomaa says.
They douse plants with herbicides and pesticides and use gallons of commercial fertilizer, posing a potential health hazard for drug dealers’ customers.
The planting loosens the forest ground. Heavy rains can wash soil, chemicals and poisons into streams and fertilizers can increase algae and weed growth.
It’s not just trained law enforcement officials who discover these illegal operations. Often hunters, anglers, hikers, mushroom hunters and families either stumble across or find and follow irrigation lines to grow sites.
And that can be dangerous.
Authorities often find booby traps near the sites, including trip lines and buried boards buried with spikes sticking up. Traffickers increasingly arm the farmers to protect their profit.
Authorities advise people who think they may be near a plantation to back out immediately and call 911.
“You, your family and friends ought to be able to go into a national forest without worrying about walking into someone’s outdoor grow,” Peltomaa says.
Authorities say they’re overwhelmed by the number of pot farms on public lands, and don’t have enough funding to clean them properly. Agents either burn or bury plants on site or remove them by helicopter. Land management agencies and volunteers are often left to reclaim the territory.
It’s critical that officials remove the materials, not just to restore the land, but because growers often return to the same sites and plant again, experts say. They may wait a year, or sometimes not even a day.
Peltomaa says he hopes Michigan forests don’t continue to suffer from an increasingly damaging trend.
“These are public lands,” he says. “They’re not meant to be the sole province of someone who decides to grow marijuana. It’s not theirs to decide to clear cut trees and plant and scare people off.”
Andrew Norman writes for Great Lakes Echo.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.