Monday, December 7, 2015

The Environmental Impacts of the "Green Rush"

The "Green Rush"
Image: California Fish and Wildlife Service

The Jackson County Planning Commission is taking public comment on proposed regulations for commercial cannabis cultivation in Jackson County, Oregon until December 10th, 2015. Similar regulations are being considered in surrounding counties as well, affecting commercial cannabis cultivation for both medical and recreational purposes. The topic is also currently one of the hottest environmental and political issues in northern California, with environmental groups like EPIC and Friends of the Eel River at the forefront, directly tackling the environmental concerns of cannabis cultivation head on. Like it or not, cannabis is here to stay, but it is how we manage and regulate this industry that will decide whether or not the industry will significantly impact the quality of life, habitat, and environment that surrounds us in southern Oregon and northern California.

Due to the failed policy of marijuana prohibition, the cannabis industry has continued to be kept in the closet, unregulated, and shrouded in secrecy. Although recreational marijuana was recently made legal in Oregon, federal cannabis prohibitions are fueling the black market, the secrecy, and the lack of regulations, as well as the environmental and social impacts. It is time for state and county agencies to move beyond the prohibition mentality. They should stop enforcing “marijuana laws” and start enforcing environmental laws and zoning regulations intended to protect our environment and communities. Cannabis is legal in Oregon and should be treated as such, yet environmental and social concerns surrounding the industry must be addressed as they are for any other industry, agricultural product, or commercial activity.

Southwestern Oregon has a long history of boom and bust industry, starting with the region's early development during the Gold Rush. During this era our streams, rivers, and fisheries were severely impacted by mining operations. The mining boom led to agriculture in our area and its associated impacts to rivers, streams, fisheries, and valley bottom habitat. Waves of resource extraction and environmental degradation have unfortunately defined our economy, such as the timber boom that spread across the region from the 1950s to the early 1990s. Our resources have been unsustainably extracted or produced, leading to the collapse of fisheries and the degradation of habitats across the region.

Recently a new industry has flooded into the region, seeking to maximize profits from our water, soil and sunlight. This new influx of economic activity, the cannabis industry, has been coined the Green Rush due to its sometimes irresponsible and opportunist nature. Cannabis cultivation has quickly become an economic mainstay for many in northern California and southern Oregon. Its economic importance in the region is significant and has the potential to support a meaningful cottage industry of responsible growers, contributing to a diversified regional economy and implementing Best Management Practices that protect our water quality, wildlife habitat, and rural communities. Unfortunately, an increasing number of irresponsible, inconsiderate, and unsustainable cannabis growers have put this positive economic influence at risk, threatening our quality of life in rural southwestern Oregon and northern California. For some, our region is simply a place to make large sums of money by illegally bulldozing large landings and growing large amounts of cannabis to be sold on the black market for even larger sums of cash. 

Density of cannabis grow sites in Oregon. Southwestern Oregon, with its Mediterranean climate, supports the largest density of cannabis growers in the state.  Map:

Our economic system promotes this greed and short-sighted behavior — capitalism is a system of excess, and cannabis cultivation is a multi-billion dollar industry. The cannabis industry now has CEOs, lobby groups, industry spokespeople, media representatives, public relations specialists, and growing political clout. Cannabis cultivation has become another industry, with all its vice and corruption. Scott Greacen, director of Friends of the Eel River in northern California, has said of the cannabis industry: “What we need is to change the culture of silence that surrounds the industry today, to a culture of accountability. One that recognizes making messes you don’t plan to clean up and harming species who have as much right to be here as we do, not just as unfair business practices, but as threats to the integrity and viability of our community.”

Unfortunately, like any lucrative industrial pursuit, the profits of the cannabis industry come with impacts to our local rivers and streams, forests, oak woodlands, chaparral habitats, wildlife, and human communities. The influx of new people, new values, and new cannabis grows have created development, gentrification, shortages in affordable housing, habitat fragmentation, environmental impacts, and tension in many rural neighborhoods.

The environmental impacts of the cannabis industry are cumulative, building on top of one another, grow after grow, after grow. The impacts include the haphazard bulldozing of roads, landing pads, and hillside terraces, creating erosion, vegetation loss and increased sedimentation. Illegal water diversion and withdrawal can lead to extreme impacts to salmon bearing streams, reduced stream flows, the clearing of riparian vegetation, diesel spills (from pumps), and nutrient runoff from fertilizers. The conversion of forest land to industrial cannabis cultivation sites is a major concern. It is also currently a major problem in northern California, and increasingly in southern Oregon as well. This practice includes clear-cut logging and vegetation removal. In southwestern Oregon cannabis cultivation is impacting chaparral, oak woodland, conifer forests, and riparian vegetation. Noxious weeds are being introduced into otherwise relatively undisturbed areas, habitat is being removed and/or fragmented, and landings bulldozed.

Post Mountain, Humboldt County, CA 2005. Taken from "Resource Impacts of Marijuana Cultivation in Northern California" California Fish and Wildlife Service
Post Mountain 2012. Only seven years later, forest fragmentation due to commercial cannabis cultivation in Humboldt County, California grew exponentially.

The Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregion has been the site of many trespass grows on public land, where, at times, mammals and birds are poisoned by rodenticides used to keep down rats, woodrats, and mice that girdle or eat young cannabis plants. Rodenticide poisoning can also occur on private land in legal cannabis grows. A study in northern California authored by Mourad Gabriel found that almost 80 percent of Pacific fishers found dead by researchers between 2006 and 2011 had been exposed to high levels of rodenticide exposure. The exposure and harm to wildlife from rodenticides is widespread. Poisonings have been documented in at least 25 wildlife species in California alone, including: San Joaquin kit foxes, Pacific fishers, golden eagles, bobcats, mountain lions, black bears, coyotes, gray foxes, red foxes, Cooper’s hawks, red-shouldered hawks, red-tailed hawks, kestrels, barn owls, great horned owls, long-eared owls, western screech owls, spotted owls, Swainson’s hawks, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, opossums, turkey vultures and crows. Many of the animals are killed by eating poisoned rodents and are in turn exposed. Anticoagulant rodenticides result in a disruption of blood clotting, resulting in uncontrollable bleeding and death.                                                                  

The Environmental Protection Agency is taking action to ban hazardous d-CON rat and mouse poisons nationwide after d-CON refused to remove super-toxic rodenticides from the residential market. Sixteen California jurisdictions have also passed resolutions urging the public and pest control operators to avoid the most harmful rodent poisons. Those jurisdictions include San Francisco, Marin County, Berkeley, Richmond, Albany, Emeryville, El Cerrito, Belmont, San Anselmo, Brisbane, Foster City, Malibu, Whittier, Fairfax, Calabasas and Humboldt County. Jackson County should do the same, and ban rodenticide use in cannabis cultivation.
Pacific Fisher
Photo: USFWS

Many small-scale cannabis growers are responsibly producing a legal product to be sold within the cannabis industry. Commercial growers who are utilizing appropriate agricultural lands and do not convert forestland to cannabis plantations; who are minimizing impacts to riparian areas, streams and fisheries; who do not utilize toxic herbicides, pesticides, rodenticides, or chemical fertilizers should be supported. Growers who are acting as good neighbors should be acknowledged for their responsible behavior. Yet these same growers should also speak out within their own industry and advocate for sustainable industry practices and neighborly behavior, just as organic farmers do within the organic/sustainable farming community. An increasing number of residents, environmentalists, neighbors, and responsible growers are demanding a sustainable future. Join us!
Please advocate for the following regulations in your comments to the Jackson County Planning Commission:

  • Do not allow forestland conversion by allowing large-scale commercial cannabis operations to become established on land zoned for forest resources. This includes woodland resource land and commercial forestland. The spread of commercial growing operations into forestland reduces available habitat for forest species, increases habitat fragmentation, development and sprawl, and encourages conversion of forestland into commercial cannabis farms. The impact has reached severe proportions in northern California. Check out this eye-opening video documenting the results of forest conversion in Humboldt County, California. Video: Forest fragmentation from cannabis growing in Humboldt County, CA
  • Require permitting on all large commercial grows to verify that environmental laws and regulations are being met. This would include the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, protections for wetlands and streams, regulations on grading (bulldozing) and land clearing, road development, and other forms of land management associated with commercial cannabis cultivation and other industrial or agricultural activities.
  • Require all commercial grows to meet Best Management Practices. Best Management Practices should include practices that address social, environmental, and neighborhood compatibility concerns.  This would apply to land clearing, grading, herbicide and pesticide use, road building, and other agricultural or industrial projects.
  • Require setbacks from riparian areas and stream corridors for all commercial grows. This will protect riparian areas from unnecessary impacts associated with grading (bulldozing), clearing and sedimentation. It will also reduce the potential for contamination from pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers.
  • Ban the use of rodenticides, such as D-con and Talon, in commercial cannabis cultivation. Rodenticides associated with some cannabis production have been shown to severely impact and/or kill Pacific fishers and other wildlife that prey on rodents or eat carrion killed by rodenticides.
  • Create a Jackson County/OSU extension certification program that offers education for salmon-friendly, forest-friendly, organic, and other responsible cannabis growing practices. This program could become an avenue to educate the local cannabis growing population about the environmental regulations effecting the cannabis industry. The program could certify local growers in sustainable outdoor growing practices, educate about Best Management Practices and environmental regulations affecting the industry, and build a culture of stewardship within this budding (no pun intended) industry. The certification could be used to market our local cannabis products as ecologically sustainable and promote responsible growing practices.       
To comment on the proposed regulations send a comment to:
Kelly A. Madding
Jackson County
Development Services Director
10 S. Oakdale, Rm 100
Medford, OR  97501
(541) 774-6519

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