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'We're one cigarette away': Illegal marijuana farms pose wildfire risk in California's parched national forests

Law enforcement can’t keep up with drug traffickers who grow marijuana in national forests, poisoning wildlife, siphoning water and risking wildfires.

LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. — After a 2½-mile trek through thick brush, Mourad Gabriel stepped into a small clearing. A month earlier, this half-acre swath of the Cleveland National Forest, nearly invisible from the air, had been an illegal marijuana grow estimated to be worth more than $1.2 million. The U.S. Forest Service’s law enforcement officers had hacked down the plants, but Gabriel and his team were there to cart out nearly 3,000 pounds of trash and to clean up something else the drug traffickers left behind: poison. 

Gabriel, a regional wildlife ecologist for the Forest Service, spooned swabs of pesticide into a military-grade testing device to identify chemicals used by illicit farmers, which kill the forest’s wildlife. Recalling a past bust, he said: “We had a dead bear, a turkey vulture that was dead consuming that bear, and then another turkey vulture that was dead consuming that turkey vulture and that bear.

“We call it ‘The circle of death.’”

The illegal grow site in Cleveland National Forest visited by NBC News on Oct. 6.NBC News

But another looming danger to animals — and to the human residents of one of the most populous areas in America — is fire. Just over the mountains from this grow is the sprawl of greater Los Angeles and its 19 million people. Advocates estimate that California’s national forests, four of which ring the Los Angeles basin, are home to 80 percent to 85 percent of the country’s illegal marijuana grows on public land. Every time traffickers start a grow on California’s drought-stricken federal forests, they put millions of people at risk. They use scarce water and sometimes set bone-dry woodlands ablaze. At least 13 wildfires in the past dozen years have been linked to grows.

The Forest Service has long struggled to keep up — the agency has about one law enforcement officer for every 300,000 acres of forest — but since the coronavirus pandemic started, it has gotten even harder.

In the past two years alone, grow operations in California have rerouted millions of gallons of water, caused a 125,000-acre wildfire in Big Sur and helped add at least one species to the endangered list. 

“This is an abuse of the natural resources and the land that we as an agency are stewarding for the public,” Gabriel said.

Firefighters monitor a controlled fire to help slow the Dolan Fire in Big Sur, Calif., on Sept. 11, 2020.Nic Coury / AP file

Deadly risks

The marijuana cultivation season coincides with the peak of wildfire season, diverting officers who would be targeting the grows into investigating the blazes, supporting firefighters and evacuating civilians.

But sometimes those missions overlap. Last year’s 125,000-acre Dolan Fire was started by a marijuana grower in the Los Padres National Forest.

“It burned through an iconic international landscape — Big Sur. It killed 11 endangered condors,” said Rich McIntyre, the director of the Cannabis Removal on Public Lands Project, or the CROP Project, a coalition advocating for more resources to reclaim grow sites and catch growers. “It overran firefighters. I mean, it’s just a nightmare.”

Because marijuana cultivators live at their grow sites for months at a time, they introduce hazards like cigarettes, open-flame stoves and wood fires to highly combustible forestland. The CROP Project has identified at least 13 wildfires across California in the past 12 years caused by people associated with grow sites. NBC News was able to independently document half a dozen of them. From a 12,000-acre fire in 2014 caused by sparks from the tailpipe of a vehicle driving to a grow site to a much larger conflagration in 2009, fires associated with illegal grows have burned at least 275,000 acres across California.

The Forest Service estimates that the true toll is far higher, as the origins of wildfires can be difficult to investigate and confirm. 

Many of the pesticides that drug traffickers use, meanwhile, are so poisonous that they have been outlawed in the U.S. for decades. 

“These are some of the most toxic chemicals you could ever use on crops,” said Greta Wengert, the executive director of the Integral Ecology Research Center, or IERC, a nonprofit organization that studies the impact of grow sites on the environment and assists the Forest Service in its cleanup efforts. 

Some of the biggest threats are the pesticides and rodenticides that growers spread to poison animals that threaten their plants or campsites. 

The chemicals are so toxic, Wengert said, and used in such high concentrations that a number of officers and cleanup workers have been hospitalized for exposure.

Greta Wengert swabs chemicals at the illegal grow site.Sydney Krantz for NBC News

“You take a little bit of carbofuran here: couple drops, mix it with some tuna fish, put it on the edge of your grow, an animal comes in, eats it and dies within two minutes,” Wengert said. “There’s your poison bomb, right there.”

That’s especially problematic because IERC’s research has shown how the deadly, illegal chemicals work their way up the food chain as animals feed on one another. “It’s passed on again and again,” Wengert said. 

The Cleveland National Forest site is home to both the endangered Arroyo toad and the endangered California condor. But Wengert is also concerned about how the chemicals might be ingested by people — whether in the marijuana they consume or from runoff into water supplies. Through snowmelt and other sources, national forests provide 50 percent of the state’s water. The Cleveland Forest site sits in a watershed that runs directly into the water supply of San Juan Capistrano, a city of 36,000. 

Wengert’s group is studying downstream exposure, and in several cases, has confirmed the presence of toxic chemicals in waterways immediately downstream of grow sites.

“The next significant precipitation event is just going to slough all this off into the San Juan Creek,” said Gabriel, the wildlife ecologist, running the grow site’s loose soil through his fingers. “That creek right below us is going to not just contaminate critical habitat for the Arroyo Toad, but it’s going to go downstream to San Juan Capistrano.”

A federal officer holds a rope to help the crew climb down a steep path in the forest.Sydney Krantz for NBC News

Net gain

Typically run by drug-trafficking organizations, an average grow site may have 2,000 plants and yield hundreds to thousands of pounds of marijuana worth millions. New strains have allowed traffickers to get more product per plant, making grows even more profitable, according to law enforcement. 

And losing a few sites a year to busts by the Forest Service is just the cost of doing business, said Special Agent in Charge Don Hoang, who heads Forest Service law enforcement for the region. "It’s a rule of probability. If they grow as many [sites] as they can, they know that we’re going to find a few of them. And then there’s stuff that we don’t find, and that’s where they make their profit.”

Setting up a grow site isn’t cheap. It takes time, planning and money to bring in the infrastructure and labor — from miles of irrigation pipe to thousands of pounds of fertilizers and armed workers who live at the grow site all season long. 

“One drug traffic organization can invest, let’s say, a quarter-million, a half-million dollars into one grow. And then pull out a 200 percent to 300 percent net gain from that,” Gabriel said. “I don’t think anybody’s investment portfolio could ever do that.”

While some grow sites may be hiding just a mile or so off a main highway, others can take officers days to reach. Growers are typically armed, Hoang said, and they often have a tactical advantage when law enforcement comes in to try to break up their operation.

The Forest Service’s law enforcement division has arrested more than 2,170 people for cultivating marijuana on national forest land in California since 2000. The Forest Service and partner agencies bust more than 200 such sites on public lands annually, but cleanups, like the one in Cleveland National Forest, are expensive. 

Federal officers attach illegal grow site water tubing to a helicopter cargo hook.Sydney Krantz for NBC News
A helicopter transports part of the crew from Cleveland National Forest to a nearby parking lot.Sydney Krantz for NBC News

The team at the Cleveland National Forest site pulled out nearly a ton and a half of trash on one day in October, more than a mile of irrigation piping, 1,110 pounds of fertilizer and bottle after bottle of banned pesticide, removing much of the bulkier material from the forest by helicopter. It is one of more than 40 sites cleaned up on national forest land in California alone this year, at an average cost of $40,000 per site — before hazardous material disposal. But that’s just a drop in the bucket, Gabriel said. 

There are hundreds of sites a year spread across California’s 20 million acres of national forest alone — the Forest Service simply doesn’t have enough resources to tackle every one. There is no dedicated funding for the operations; the agency’s overall law enforcement budget has stayed about the same size for most of the last decade.

“In reality, we need 20.2 to 23.2 million [dollars] for five to eight years to fully address the topic in California alone,” Gabriel said. “Essentially, we put in only 10 to 12 percent of what is truly needed annually.”

Toxic fertilizer, grow pods and a backpack were left by marijuana farmers at the grow site.Sydney Krantz for NBC News

The technology to detect sites has improved over time, but the agency estimates that in a given year it detects about half of the sites on its land. And of the sites the agency detects, about a quarter are able to keep operating unhindered because the agency doesn’t have the resources to bust them before the traffickers harvest. The agency identifies dozens of grow sites annually that it is unable to get to before harvest.

Overall, arrests for the grow sites have been on the decline since 2008, and the number of grow sites and plants eradicated in California’s national forests has dropped steeply in the past five years.

With the proper resources, Gabriel said, the agency could eliminate marijuana grows within the next eight years. “We have the will to do this, and we’re ready to do this,” he said. “We leave them dirt, they don’t come back.”

Mountains in Cleveland National Forest.NBC News

One campfire, one cigarette

According to the Forest Service, once a grow site has been cleaned up and restored to its natural state, growers tend not to come back. That’s why increasing funding for the cleanup efforts is so important, said McIntyre of the CROP Project.

“They need a lot more juice. They need a lot more people. And they need funding to actually see this through,” said McIntyre, whose coalition includes lawmakers of both parties, scientists, law enforcement officials, environmentalists and legal marijuana organizations. “Without substantial funding, it’s whack-a-mole.”

Some of the additional funding may soon be on its way. The infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed last month included a substantial increase in Forest Service funding to fight and prevent wildfires. The House also increased money for the agency in its annual spending bill, with the Appropriations Committee specifically expressing support in its accompanying report for agency efforts to detect and remove the sites, but the Senate has yet to do the same. Bipartisan members of California’s House delegation have also proposed a bill that would increase criminal penalties for stealing water from federal lands.

Black tubing, used to water the illegal marijuana plants, weaves through the forest floor.Sydney Krantz for NBC News

The alternative is dire, McIntyre said. “We are one campfire, one dropped cigarette, one getaway fire in a trespass grow away from a landscape fire that could burn a million acres. And when that happens, we lose that public resource for an entire generation.”