Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Curtailing the cost of illegal marijuana grow site clean up

Lassen and Plumas National Forest staff have been trained to remove the irrigation infrastructure and other debris from illegal marijuana grow site. Forest Service photo by Joyce El Kouarti.

CALIFORNIA — Illegal marijuana grow sites are popping up on national forests across the country. These sites use legal and illegal chemicals that have a profound impact upon soil, water, and wildlife.

According to Lassen National Forest Watershed Program Manager Carol Thornton, many national forests are not sure how to go about cleaning up illegal grow sites because of health and safety concerns.

Because most illegal grow sites are located in remote areas, helicopters are usually needed to remove piping, trash, and debris. Forest Service photo by Joyce El Kouarti.

Drug cartels build most sites, which typically feature well-developed infrastructure that includes miles of irrigation piping and multiple base camps complete with kitchens, packaging stations, and latrine areas as well as the crops themselves. Most sites are used year after year, leading to more fertilizer, pesticides, and rodenticides accumulating in forest ecosystems.

According to PSW Special Agent Tony Magarrell, the most effective way to discourage the cartels from using and returning to national forests is to remove the infrastructure. However, this process is expensive. It typically costs from $30,000 to $70,000 per site to have hazmat contractors assess and remove hazardous and non-hazardous chemicals and other debris.

Fortunately, Thornton and Magarrell have found an alternative that can lower clean-up expenses by up to 80 percent. Their cost-saving secret lies in contracting only those services that must to be outsourced, such as the hazmat assessment, mapping, and aerial removal. If a hazardous material is located, it is packaged and contained in a five-gallon bucket by certified individuals and kept safe until qualified personnel remove it.

But Thornton and Magarrell look to non-hazmat professionals to take out the remaining infrastructure and debris. In Northeastern California, Lassen and Plumas National Forest Service staff partner with California National Guard, state and national Fish and Wildlife Departments, and other cooperators to safely pack and take away non-hazardous piping and trash. Staff and partners receive training in proper handling of materials, along with protective equipment and cleaning supplies. This approach been approved by OSHA.

“Not only does this approach use limited resources efficiently, but it also brings people together for a common mission,” said Magarrell. “They get immediate gratification from seeing the land improved after it has been cleaned up.”