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‘We’re one cigarette away’: Illegal pot farms pose wildfire risk in California’s parched national forests

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

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.’”

Image: Aerial footage of the illegal grow site in Cleveland National Forest visited by NBC News on Oct. 6, 2021.
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.

To Read The Rest Of This Article By Adiel Kaplan, Kenzi Abou-Sabe and Cynthia McFadden on NBC News

Published: December 02, 2021

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