The latest chapter in the battle against marijuana farms in national parks led to the closure of Crystal Cave in Sequoia National Park while rangers swooped in on a growing operation with an estimated street value of $20 million.
The operation was within a half-mile of the cave, according to park officials. Situated in a steep area of Sequoia, one rife with rattlesnakes and black bears, the pot farm is just the latest to be found within the National Park System. While Sequoia used to be the only park with such growing operations, in recent years they've been spotted in Yosemite, Kings Canyon, North Cascades, Redwoods, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said Scott Wanek, chief ranger for the National Park Service's Pacific West Region.
“Every year we seem to be adding parks that are used for this activity," he said Thursday.
As the operations have sprouted in more and more areas, they've also become more sophisticated, the chief ranger said. No longer restricted to lower altitudes in chaparral, growing operations now can be found in conifer forests in the parks, he said. Plus, from the horticultural side advances have enabled the growers to produce not one but two crops a year, said Chief Ranger Wanek.
The associated impacts on the parks' landscape can be tremendous, he said. Often a one-acre growing plot will translate to 10 acres of disturbance when the growers' camps are taken into consideration, the trails they cut through the landscape, the dumpsites they create, and the intricate irrigation lines they install.
"Now it’s not a big deal to route water miles away from the source to a growing location," said Chief Ranger Wanek. "You can run a lot of that lightweight irrigation tubing in a very short time.”
Then, too, there's the impact on the wildlife. Chemicals and fertilizers used in the operations contaminate streams and enter the food chain by poisoning animals that are they fed upon by scavengers. Small mammals and rodents are targeted by the growers so they don't eat the marijuana plants. Larger animals are killed for food.
“We’ve found piles of deer hooves and bear paws. I’ve gotten photos off of these guys posing with dead bears," said the chief ranger. "It’s the worst of everything we’d expect to see in the backcountry all happening in one area here."
Those behind the operations are Mexican drug cartels, not "your basic summer-of-love kids," said Holly Bundock, a public affairs specialist the West Region office.