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Illegal grows pose environmental, safety hazards

While cannabis has been legalized in Oregon since 2016, the growing of cannabis on public lands, such as national forests, has remained a serious problem. These “trespass grows” are operated almost entirely by cartels, exploiting natural resources, poisoning wildlife, and posing a danger to outdoor recreators. While most of these operations have been historically located on national forests in northern California and Southern Oregon, they are expanding onto both public and private lands, as is happening in Josephine and Jackson counties, where hundreds of greenhouses now blanket lands throughout the valley. The health ramifications could not be worse.

Trespass and illegal cartel grows take a massive toll on our environment. Cartel growers remove native riparian vegetation critical to many species of wildlife, and illegally siphon streams. Indiscriminate in their use of water, they dewater key habitats and are playing a role in the extinction of native salmon. As has been shown, they also engage in extensive human trafficking and violence.

In California, it is estimated that each year trespass growers divert enough surface water to supply the annual water budget for 50,000 residential homes. The per-capita diversion rate is likely similar in Oregon, which shares the Klamath-Siskiyou ecosystem and a multitude of special-status species. In Oregon, every drop of our water is important, especially during drought. Water for residential use and farming is an integral part of rural livelihoods, and is currently being stolen by upstream trespass grows.

Not only are water sources being depleted, but they are also being contaminated. These grows routinely use EPA-banned pesticides, including Carbofuran — the deadliest carbamate pesticide manufactured globally, and one that law enforcement has confirmed to have been found in both Josephine and Jackson counties.

In recent years, trespass grows have been the cause of major wildfires, destroying homes, lives and watersheds. According to research done by NBC News and the Cannabis Removal on Public Lands Project, trespass grows have burned a minimum of 285,000 acres on California’s public lands, costing billions in suppression efforts. We are one trespass grow caused wildfire from a million-acre landscape fire that will destroy communities and wreck public lands for generations.

Firefighters and law enforcement report confrontations by armed growers and the weaponization of deadly pesticides, including Carbofuran (one quarter teaspoon of which can immediately kill a 600-lb black bear). Carbofuran’s combustibility makes it even more dangerous in a hot fire, where it could be inhaled by firefighters.

Congress must act. Bipartisan members of Congress are now working to increase enforcement and clean-up efforts on public lands. The House Natural Resources budget for 2022 increases funding for the Forest Service, which includes directive language acknowledging the trespass grow issue and mandating action. It is critical for the U.S. Senate, and especially Senator Merkley, who Chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, to demonstrate leadership and affirm these increases and directive language in the budget reconciliation. Public land trespass grows are a clear and present danger, and bold and swift action is needed to protect our land, water, and environment. The legacy of Oregon’s wildlands is at stake.

Rich McIntyre of Jackson County is the director of the Cannabis Removal on Public Lands Project (CROP).