The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 19: Restoring a Park Gone to Pot

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

A farming business trashes our wild places, and volunteers clean it up. Listen next, to restoring a park gone to pot, on The WildeBeat.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number nineteen.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Think back to this past summer. Picture yourself visiting California's first state park, Big Basin Redwoods. You walk a couple of hundred yards down a dirt service road, and scramble another hundred yards up a rugged and overgrown seasonal stream bed. In a clearing, you find yourself face-to-face with a half a dozen armed men protecting their hidden marijuana plantation.

This is not fiction. This site was barely a quarter mile from the campground. But it was difficult to get back in there. The stream bed the growers used for access was overgrown. It was easy to miss.

State park ranger Todd Barto says that casual hikers had a small chance of finding this place.

TODD BARTO: Well as you put it, small chance. Marijuana growers don't want to be caught, and so they're going to be in an area where they're not going to be seen, they're not going to draw attention to themselves, and they're going to be off the beaten path. I would say it's very safe to be out here, walking the trails, being in the backcountry, as long as you are on the main paths.

STEVE: In two thousand three, three and a half million marijuana plants were seized from farming operations on public lands. These plants have a street value of at least ten billion dollars. Alex Picavet, a public information officer for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, says this is a growing problem.

ALEX PICAVET: Sequoia National Park has the largest problem with the actual growing happening here in the wilderness portions of the park. It's the largest problem in the National park Service; no other park comes close. There's always been a small problem in many national parks with people growing marijuana. In two thousand and one Sequoia National Park became aware that the problem was getting much larger. We were finding larger gardens, to the point where we no longer called them gardens. We started to call them farms or plantations. Part of the reason for that we think has to do with the tightening of the borders after the nine eleven incident. It made it more difficult to brings things across any borders, and it became more advantageous for those people to try to grow their marijuana here in the United States.

STEVE: Back in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, a law enforcement raid in early August cleared out the growers and the contraband plants. But park naturalist Chris Spohrer saw an ecological disaster.

CHRIS SPOHRER: I believe there was about less than five thousand plants, but it was probably on the order of four or five acres of disturbance. And it's a steep slope, and everywhere that they planted has been disturbed, and there's been campsites. I don't think they cut any large redwood trees down, that would have caused way too much disturbance, and they're not into that. But they did probably cut out the cyanothis, which is the early successional shrub species that comes in as the first plant. So they cut some of those, they cut come tan oaks, they probably cut some young redwood sprouts that had come in. The main ecological damage that occurs with a disturbance like this is erosion related. The herbicides, pesticides, any sort of chemicals that they're using up there that are leaching out and getting into the water system are a concern. Fertilizers, weed killer -- I think they had some stuff to deter deer, I'm not sure how toxic that is. Anytime you have chemicals like that that are leaching out into the environment, that's a problem.

STEVE: With this mess on his hands, state park sector superintendent William Dall had to find resources to help with the clean-up.

WILLIAM DALL: We looked at our park staff and volunteers, and what we just had available. And one of the things I then went to was to other local agencies, and asked is there some sort of program within our department. Then on of our resource ecologists had heard about the organization that was working with the forest service, and having those resources with the High Sierra Volunteer Crew was something that was really a wonderful thing to have.

[Background, trash bagging]

STEVE: The first thing I saw was a bare hill side covered with thousands of little circular landings dug into the forest floor. They'd look like stair steps, if they weren't mostly following the same contour lines. The clearing is surrounded by very tall redwood trees.

A little higher, a couple of dozen volunteers are filling large clear plastic bags with trash. There's trash all around, on the ground, in open pits, and buried under piles of branches.

Sherry Pfefferkorn is one of the volunteers.

SHERRY PFEFFERKORN: It looked like somebody had been living out here probably for a long time. And so they had all of the trash you produce in your daily living. We had lots of canned goods, propane. There's a lot of plastic, just lots and lots of plastic. Then there was a lot of fertilizer, you know, just chemicals like that.

STEVE: They're piling the trash on top of large nylon nets. These are under a big "X" of yellow tape that marks the landing zone for a helicopter.

[Helicopter fades in]

STEVE: The chopper is courtesy of the California Highway Patrol. It hovers over the landing site. Shane Krogren is the director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew.

SHANE KROGEN: Based on the bags it looks like we had maybe between thirty and forty really large trash bags. These are probably sixty gallon trash bags of trash. There's some drip line, maybe a thousand feet of drip line from what I saw was coiled up there. So, in the scale of the gardens that we've seen this year, and that we've already cleaned up, this would be considered a small to medium size.

STEVE: To everyone's disappointment, the helicopter left after about ten minutes. They never even dropped the hook line. Ranger Todd Barto came up the hill.

[ToddBarto-2: 0:36.2]

STEVE: Bad news on the helicopter, huh?

[Helicopter fades out]

TODD BARTO: Yeah. It's going to take a lot of effort to get it out of here now.

STEVE: What do you estimate is the weight of all that stuff?

TODD BARTO: Probably one ton of stuff -- maybe. The trees are about two hundred feet, maybe two hundred feet plus, I think they have a line of about one hundred fifty feet. They can't have any more line, because the helicopter, it just doesn't have enough horsepower for that. You need a bigger helicopter.

SHANE KROGEN: Good morning! On behalf of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew and the State Park System we appreciate the fact that you'd take time out on your weekend and also on Friday to come up here to do this clean-up project. Again today as most of you guys know, unfortunately the helicopter could not lift the trash out, so that's our first objective this morning. My job is basically to tell you tat we want to be safe today. That's our number one priority. Second after that we want to have a little bit of fun. As I've said in the past we have no political views. I don't care whether marijuana is legalized or not. All we care about is what is happening to the forest and what is the damage that they're doing, so that we can restore it really quickly. So we make no political statement as to what's going on with it. Then the third thing is getting stuff done. We'd like to be able to complete this project and when we leave be able to say that it's back the way the park service ask us to be in our agreement with them. What we're going to do is we're going to hike out of here; it's just a very short walk down the trail a little bit and then up the hill.


STEVE: Forty five volunteers are lined up and down the stream bed in a bag brigade. They're throwing big trash bags, and coils of plastic pipe, down a hundred yards of steep, muddy, overgrown stream bed. At the bottom of the hill, a four wheel drive pickup will take it to a waiting garbage truck.

I couldn't imagine what it would cost the state park to do this with paid labor, but Shane Krogen had an answer.

SHANE KROGEN: Friday we had about twenty three volunteers show up and start the process of cleaning it up and getting it prepared. Today we've got about forty four or forty five people actually out here, so when you look at it in terms of that it's a pretty massive effort over a two day period to take care of that.

STEVE: If the State Park Service had to do this work, what kind of expense would they be incurring?

SHANE KROGEN: It would probably cost them between nine and thirteen thousand dollars to clean this up. In our particular case we're about one tenth of what that is because again no one in our organization is paid, and we only basically ask for reimbursement of what our costs are, which are food.

STEVE: And the people that volunteer for this, what do you think draws them to do this?

SHANE KROGEN: Boy, I tell you that's an interesting question! I mean, when you look at how hard it is up there and as wet as they came back in after the rain storm yesterday and as muddy as they were and they still had smiles on their faces. I gotta tell you, people who take time away from their precious time off just to come out and volunteer and do this kind of work, they're very unique and very special people.


STEVE: With all the trash gone, they start restoring the stream beds and the forest floor. They use an array of interesting hand tools.

MALE VOLUNTEER: Where do the names come from for these things? Pulaski, mccloud...

KATHERINE SAYERS: Fire people. They've been breathing a lot of smoke.

MALE VOLUNTEER: Probably smoke from places like this.

KATHERINE SAYERS: No really they are named after people. The pulaski is named after Pulaski. And the McCloud is named after McCloud! Actually shovel, Mr. shovel.

STEVE: The hardest part of the job is restoring the original stream beds. It's also the most crucial.

So what did they use this pit for?

MALE VOLUNTEER: I don't know! Probably water storage.

SHERRY PFEFFERKORN: This was probably satanic rituals.

STEVE: So this was lined with plastic?

SHERRY PFEFFERKORN: This was all lined with plastic, and what we assume is that it was filled with water, 'cause what they did was that they blocked-up the dam because it was getting too low, the water gets too low and they have to let the water pool up. And so I think they had a pipe that came down, and filled up the reservoir here, and then from here they fed the plants.

STEVE: So they dammed up this little creek...


STEVE: ...and diverted it into this pit here, which is about maybe five by six feet.

Matt Weld is a watershed restoration engineer.

MATT WELD: At most sites we just tried to restore the natural stream profile by removing the inline dams, filling depressions, re-contouring the ground where they dug pits for their plants -- that sort of thing. Just trying to prevent large pulses of sediment from moving downstream in the areas that have been disturbed. Trying to stabilize it as much as possible using logs and branches. Places where sediment was dumped right in the stream channel we weren't able to effectively remove it all due to the fact that it's lodged in with larger logs and stumps and things like that. Yeah in the first couple of years, depending on the weather patterns, we're going to see some pretty good pulses of sediment moving downstream. It takes time to find its way down to the main channels where it's going to impact spawning steel-head.

STEVE: How long do you think it's going to be before the sort of obvious evidence of this disruption has gone away?

MATT WELD: I think in five years it's going to be hard to see most of what happened up there.

STEVE: When I hiked back out of that former marijuana plantation, all that was left was an open area strewn with dead leaves and branches. It didn't look like a garden, but it wasn't a living, pristine forest floor either.

[Digging fades out]

Some estimates say Americans spend forty billion dollars a year on marijuana. A large percentage of that appears to be paying for the destruction of our wild lands. The trail crew put a band aid on Big Basin State Park. But the injuries to our other wild lands continue.

No matter where you stand on the drug law debate, you should know that buying pot hurts our parks. Helping to restore them is a big job, but there aren't enough people to do it.

To find out more about the trail crew, and about the problem of drug cultivation in our wild places, please go to our web site.

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Next time - finding solitude near twenty million people.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to ensure future editions of The WildeBeat. Send your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net, or call our comment line at 866-590-7373.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number nineteen. Thank you for listening.

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