On a warm summer afternoon three years ago, Scott Bauer was hiking near the redwoods in Northern California when he came upon a clearing in the forest. As a scientist with the state's department of fish and wildlife, Bauer had heard about marijuana farms in national parks, but he had never seen one up close. The scale of destruction surprised him. Towering pines and Douglas firs, some over a century old, had been leveled, and a bulldozer had dumped several tons of sediment into a nearby creek, choking it off.
As Bauer got closer he found piles of burnt trash, half empty sacks of toxic pesticides seeping into the soil, and the withering stalks of hundreds of marijuana plants spread out over five acres of denuded landscape.
"The growers had split," Bauer says. "But it was clear they had little regard for the damage they were causing."
Since that afternoon in 2010, Bauer has stumbled across dozens of similar sites and found the same kind of environmental devastation in each place: water illegally diverted from cold mountain streams, lethal bait used to poison endangered animals, and massive greenhouses sucking up electricity.
This is the ugly secret of California's Green Rush, the medical marijuana boom that has turned Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties (often referred to as the Emerald Triangle) in to the Napa Valley of high-grade pot production in the United States. Over the last two years, speculators hoping to cash in on what has become a multi-billion dollar industry have flooded the area, says Bauer. They've radically transformed its culture and doubled the acreage under cultivation.
"When we fly above the forests, we see greenhouses and clearings popping up everywhere," Bauer says. "They'll grow it in rows, like an orchard. It used to be that growers tried to hide what they're doing, but now it's right out in the open."
In two watersheds Bauer studies the numbers of grow-ops have exploded, from 550 sites two years ago to over 1,100 today, taxing a water table already in peril after years of drought. Bauer estimates that over 18 million gallons of water were diverted from one watershed alone last year, drying up creeks where the endangered Coho salmon spawn. Growers typically take the most water during the hot and dry summer months, Bauer says, and often from headwaters that feed fish habitat further down the slopes.
The situation may be even worse in national parks like Yosemite and the Redwoods, says Maurad Gabriel, a scientist with the University of California at Davis. The grow-ops in the forests are typically much bigger than the ones Bauer studies on private lands, meaning they use more water and are often run by Mexican drug cartels, which spray pesticides so toxic they're illegal in the US. Like Bauer, Gabriel has found pesticides lining the banks of streams, as well as open latrines leaking in to creeks.
While Bauer is primarily concerned with the fate of salmon, Gabriel worries about the future of the Pacific fisher, a weasel-like mammal that feeds on fish, and other endangered animals further up the food chain, like the spotted owl. Gabriel says he's come across scores of dead animals that ate pesticides or bait, which is set out for marijuana-eating mice. He's also found dead songbirds, which accidently fly in to the barbed-wire fences growers use to dry marijuana after harvest.
The irony to all of this is that for much of its history the Emerald Triangle has been synonymous with environmental conservation. In fact, the first growers who came to the area, known locally as homesteaders, were hippies and ecologically conscious back-to-the-landers that grew their pot organically under the sun, transforming timber country in to a pothead's Shangri-la. "They viewed marijuana as a sacrament of the earth," says Tony Silvaggio, an environmental sociologist at Humboldt State University. "For them, it wasn't a business. They may have sold a little on the side to get by, but it was more of a way of life."