A rise in outdoor marijuana plantations in the county has sparked concerns about environmental degradation and fire hazards, according to county code enforcement officers and firefighters.
While marijuana grows are nothing new in the Santa Cruz Mountains, officials have found more properties in the past year where trees have been cut down and left in the woods to clear space for a grow.
“They’re creating a huge fire hazard in leaving those there,” said Cal Fire Division Chief Rich Sampson. “Often, they’re camping there. So the chance of fire is greatly increased.”
Sampson added that it was a waste of lumber. A 36-inch diameter Douglas fir contains more than 1,000 board feet of wood, he said.
Cal Fire officials said they opened roughly three cases for unlawful timber operations related to marijuana plantations in 2010. In 2011, they opened 22 cases.
Some growers have flashed medical marijuana cards to show that their grow is legal. Sampson, who inspects rural properties, said that’s not what authorities want.
Firefighters are there to check for fire safety.
“When I get out of the truck, the first thing I say is, ‘As far as I’m concerned, this is a vineyard,'” he said.
If trees are cut down and the land is converted to a marijuana grow or any other use, the owner needs a timberland conversion permit, according to Cal Fire.
Sometimes growers are well-intentioned, authorities said. They grow marijuana for personal medical use and to distribute in a legitimate patients’ collective. But other times, they are simply drug dealers looking to cash in, county authorities said.
The increase in marijuana plantations in the past few years also has triggered county code concerns, said Code Enforcement Investigator Kevin Fitzpatrick. Last summer, aerial photos from Google Earth tipped code officers to dozens of trees cleared for marijuana grows outside Boulder Creek and Davenport.
The images spanned several years. They showed pockets of forest that were erased from the landscape.
Fitzpatrick said improper grading and erosion on steeper properties have created problems. Moving dirt into waterways and fouling fish habitat have been other issues.
At one property off Kings Creek Road outside Boulder Creek, at least 50 oak trees and 12 Douglas firs were cut down. The land was terraced, but there were no erosion-control measures, such as rolled-up hay.
The erosion blockers now in place are to keep dirt from rolling into creeks and disturbing fish, Fitzpatrick said. Officials said the growers appear to be producing marijuana for personal use.
They just didn’t adhere to county code. They need a grading restoration permit.
“The message we always want to get out is: Come in and find out first. Get the permits,” Fitzpatrick said.
Minor grading permits start around $500 and can run up to $3,000 for a large property.
The owners were not available to comment.
Similar to Cal Fire, Fitzpatrick said when he inspects properties, he tells owners he is not interested in the potential criminal aspects of marijuana. It’s about land use.
“Just because of what you’re growing, we’re not going to deny it. Just do it right,” according to Fitzpatrick.
Some longtime medical marijuana growers, such as the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana, said they have always tried to be gentle with the earth. The Wo/Men’s land outside Davenport is in a meadow.
The leaders have not cut down any trees there since they started growing in the early 1990s, said Valerie Leveroni Corral, a co-founder.
Part of the reason outdoor growers do not get county permits to convert land is the gray legal area surrounding marijuana cultivation.
The state began to allow medical marijuana in 1996, and patients with a doctor’s recommendation can legally possess it and grow it for personal use.
But federal law still prohibits its cultivation, possession and sale.
Sheriff’s deputies said they are tipped off to possibly illegal marijuana plantations all the time.
Because they can only devote resources to perhaps 10 percent of the tips, deputies said they look for large-scale plantations.
Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Sgt. Mark Yanez supervises narcotics enforcement. He and others in the Sheriff’s Office believe the weak economy has contributed to the recent uptick in marijuana plantations.
More people are out of work and are growing marijuana to sell, he said.
“Medical marijuana was meant for people who need it,” according to Yanez. “It wasn’t meant for people to make money.”
News Hawk – 420 Warrior 420 MAGAZINE
Location: Santa Cruz County, CA
Source: Mercury News
Author: Stephen Baxter
Copyright: © 2012 – San Jose Mercury News