By Julian Smith
In the gray half-light of dawn, eight figures creep through the dry pine forest near Quincy, California. Seven of them wear camo uniforms bearing the logos of various government agencies: U.S. Forest Service, National Guard, California Fish & Wildlife, Plumas County Sheriff. Most have blackened faces and assault rifles at the ready. An 11-year-old Belgian Malinois named Phebe and her K9 handler lead the way.
Number eight is tall and dressed in black, with a rumpled bush hat and a Springfield Armory 9mm pistol in a hip holster. With a kaffiyeh wrapped under a dark beard, and eyebrows (in his words) “like two caterpillars about to mate,” Dr. Mourad Gabriel could pass as a local interpreter on a Special Forces raid if this were Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, he’s a wildlife biologist accompanying law-enforcement agents on an illegal marijuana farm bust.
The group traverses hillsides, fords streams, tiptoes through thickets of fern and willow, trying not to snap twigs or shake saplings. Radios crackle with whispers. Tiptoeing through rough terrain is slow going: It takes almost four hours to go three miles.
At last the goal is in sight: a dense garden of pot plants on a steep slope above Palmetto Creek. The dog team and two others move in while the rest, including
Gabriel, hold tight down by the creek. Growers are often armed, and if there are any around, they could make a break for it. Runners usually head downhill.
Word comes back: Nobody’s home. The whole team can enter safely. It’s time for Gabriel to go to work.
A combination of ideal growing weather and proximity to tens of millions of potential customers has always made northern California a great place to grow dope. California was the first to permit medical marijuana, in 1996, and this past November, residents voted “yes” on Prop 64, making California the fifth state to legalize recreational pot. Almost two-thirds of the country’s total legal harvest comes from the Golden State. The crop brought in $2.8 billion in 2015, putting it somewhere between lettuce and grapes, and some estimates project the state’s “green gold rush” could become a $6.5 billion market by 2020.
Even as California embraces the booming legal marijuana market, though, it is also seeing an explosion in illegal cultivation, much of it on the state’s vast and remote stretches of public land. National forests and even national parks have seen a surge in large-scale illegal “trespass grows,” some with tens of thousands of plants spread across dozens of acres. As much as 80 percent of illegal pot eradicated in California is grown on federal lands, and that’s just the fraction that authorities find. (Trespass grows occur in other states in the American West, and even in remote areas back east, but at nowhere near the scale of California.)
The surge has overwhelmed land-management and law-enforcement agencies, whose resources are already stretched thin. Here in the Plumas National Forest, for instance, three USFS officers have to cover some 4,600 square kilometers (1,790 square miles). That’s why so many different agencies are cooperating on this raid.
As the executive director of the non-profit Integral Ecology Research Center (IERC), Gabriel’s usual purview is studying ecosystems and their inhabitants, from big cats to endangered invertebrates. He never expected to find himself packing heat and creeping through the forest, let alone facing other threats to his and his family’s safety. But he has taken up the challenge because of illegal pot growing’s insidious side effects: The lethal poisons growers use to protect their crops and campsites from pests are annihilating wildlife, polluting pristine public lands, and maybe even turning up in your next bong hit.