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News: 03/01/2011

Pot farms found on Calabazas Creek preserve

Creek Preserve volunteers inspect a marijuana grow site they discovered last September. Photo by Alec Peters.

Large marijuana grow sites were recently uncovered on the Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve, a 1,290-acre piece of property accessed from Nuns Canyon Rd. in Glen Ellen and stretching all the way to the Sonoma-Napa county line.

Volunteers who help monitor and maintain the preserve first helped clean up a grow site and camp three years ago. Then, last September, they came upon irrigation tubing, cut into it, and high pressure ice cold water came running out, obviously indicating that the marijuana growers were back.

Since September was a time of year when the workers who maintain the illegal pot farms would be on site, the volunteers hightailed it out of there. They alerted the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District. The District manages the land, having purchased the property more than seven years ago.

The volunteers went back to the site in November, safely after marijuana harvest. They discovered an extensive operation, with a number of growing areas and camps.

Neat, trellised hillsides were covered with miles of irrigation tubing, hidden from view by manzanita bushes. While it was difficult to estimate exactly how many plants might have been involved in the operation, it was probably well over 10,000. Trees were cut, including oaks, to make way for plantings.

Campsites were left full of pounds and pounds of garbage, including food remnants, beer cans, clothes, backpacks, numerous cans of bug spray, sleeping bags tied between trees, toothpaste, pots, pans, and a working camp stove. A makeshift bathtub was dug out of the ground. Marijuana stems littered the sites.

A .45 caliber hollow point bullet was also found.

The pot farmers got their water from a year-round source, springs above Calabazas Creek.

The Calabazas volunteers guess that the intruders entered the preserve through the entrance area at the top of Nuns Canyon Rd., and that colleagues probably shuttled supplies to them over the planting, growing and harvesting seasons, roughly April through October.

The preserve, formerly part of the Beltane Ranch, was acquired by the county’s Open Space District in 2003, with plans that the property would eventually be transferred to California State Parks and become part of an expanded Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Budgetary constraints have prevented that from happening. The preserve is not open to the public except through guided tours.

Besides the obvious safety concerns of having illegal marijuana operations in forests and parks, more and more attention is being paid to the environmental damage being caused.

“It’s the environmental rape of the land,” said Calabazas Creek Preserve volunteer Lauren Johannesen. “We can clean it up, but how do we stop them from coming back? I don’t want to see these areas destroyed. This is a problem and we have to start talking about it.”

There is clear evidence that the proliferation of large marijuana grow sites in state and national parks, and other publicly and privately owned property, directly harms the environment.

It is common for the pot farmers to use fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and rat poison, which can cause serous, long-term damage to plants, water and animals. Fish and wildlife habitat are often destroyed.

Creeks are often dammed and diverted to water the grow sites, with each marijuana plant needing between three and five gallons a day.

And fire dangers increase because propane canisters are often left behind.

Law enforcement officials have become overwhelmed in recent years with calls about illegal marijuana farming, both on private and public lands.

Marijuana eradication efforts by law enforcement in Sonoma County in 2010 yielded about 350,000 total plants, the vast majority being from outdoor grows. This is almost double the amount from 2009.

Sonoma County ranks sixth in the state in marijuana plant seizures. Mendocino County led the way in 2010 with over 570,000 plants eradicated. Statewide, over 4.3 million plants were taken out, a little less than 2009. State law enforcement officials estimate the wholesale value of the destroyed crop at $17.2 billion.

Disturbingly, there has been an increase in pot farm violence over the last year, with five marijuana growers in four Northern California counties last summer being killed after violent confrontations with police. Two of those fatalities occurred in Mendocino County.

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