By Michelle Werts

Credit: Anthony Tenorio (kurei18)/Flickr

On a trek through many of Southern California’s national forests, you might stumble upon an unexpected invasive species: cannabis. Yes, the same cannabis that is more commonly referred to as marijuana.

The illegal production of marijuana in our national forests was first detected in 1995, and since then, the problem has spread to 20 states and 67 national forests, according to the USDA Forest Service. And it’s turning out to be a big problem with far-reaching consequences.

While debates continue across the country about marijuana’s medicinal qualities and legalization, there is no question that these clandestine growing operations are not beneficial to the health of our national forests:

  • First, forestland is cleared to make way for the new crop. During a hearing on marijuana cultivation on U.S. public lands last week, the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control co-chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein, revealed that more than 100-multi-acre sites on farmlands were discovered in Fresno County, California, this year. It’s estimated that the average plot size on public lands is 10-20 acres.
  • Next, thousands of feet of tubing are used to irrigate the site, taking water away from the native streams, lakes and watershed. Around 5,000 gallons of water per day are needed to care for an average marijuana plot. That’s water that we cannot afford to be diverted: in the last 10 years, the Colorado River’s water levels have dropped 35 percent. Since the Colorado supplies the water to many southwestern states, including the rich agricultural fields of California, having water diverted puts a big strain on water supplies.
  • Then, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, these illegal growing operations use highly toxic insecticides and other chemicals to protect the crop from insects and wildlife. And the chemicals are also entering our groundwater, spreading their toxic elements throughout the forest and beyond.
  • And as if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s the trash (130 tons of it from 335 sites) and the weapons and violence (six California homicides were related to marijuana on public lands in 2011).

How is all of this happening? Well, our national forest system consists of about 191.6 million acres. The number of employees nationwide? Around 35,000, with less than 1,000 accounting for law enforcement personnel. That’s one person per 5,500 acres, leaving a lot of unmonitored land ripe for the picking. Drug operations are taking advantage of this weakness and damaging sections of our forests in the process. The USDA Forest Service is working closely with the Office of National Drug Control Policy to improve the situation, but considering the daily fights over budget appropriations, I’m worried about funding for a slew of environmental initiatives and programs, which causes the goal of adequate funding to address issues like this to slip farther and farther away.