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The Environmental Impact of Marijuana Cultivation On Public Lands

What do marijuana cultivation and hunting have to do with one another?

Other than as something else to be packed with your camping gear, the recent marijuana renaissance in the US may seem to have little to do with the realm of outdoor activities. Discussions about marijuana have been centered mostly around the economics and legality of local distribution, their relationship to existing federal laws, and the changing face of cannabis culture and tourism. However, there is a part of the debate that is very relevant to us outdoorsy types, and one we should be paying attention to: marijuana cultivation on public lands.

Marijuana consumption in America is growing rapidly, both in terms of the black market as well as medicinal and legal markets. As such, there is cash to be made in supplying weed to a hungry public. The problem, of course, is that in order to meet the demand, a number of cartels have been planting marijuana in out-of-the-way corners of public land, including National Forest land, State Parks, and National Parks, and this illegal agriculture is having a disastrous effect on local ecosystems.

Illegal weed farms have been found in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Nevada, and Wisconsin. Workers pack in to the back country, cutting trails and slashing plots for cultivation, either as open air farms or as covered greenhouses. In addition to the garbage and waste produced by the workers that live and work on site, the soil erosion caused by cleared land has choked streams and severally impacted fish populations in affected areas.

Additionally, cannabis is a water intensive crop, requiring substantial irrigation networks that have severally impacted local rivers and streams. According to a fantastic article on illegal weed farms published in The Nation, local streams at one locality were lowered so dramatically by illegal irrigation that Coho Salmon spawn were trapped in isolated pools, unable to escape. Riparian corridors are keys to biodiversity in many of these regions, and weed farming is a severe hazard for a healthy river.

Fertilizers are sprayed indiscriminately, resulting in dangerous algal blooms and nutrient poisoning. Perhaps most horrifically, pesticides and rat poisons are used in tremendous quantities in order to protect the valuable plants. The result: predators are being found dead or dying as from having ingested poisoned bait. These include apex predators like mountain lions, necessary and important to the functioning of healthy ecosystems, as well as endangered and reintroduced predators, like fishers.

It's a tragic story, and a lot of important, not to mention beautiful, natural habitats are being severely impacted by illegal farming operations. Some point to the illegality of marijuana growing as a source of the trouble; because it can't be grown legally, it is susceptible to the same Prohibition-era criminal abuses that controlled bootleg liquor in the 1920s. On the other hand, the demand for the product and the associated profit margins are such that it is hard to imagine how a legal a regulated marijuana industry could overtake the extremely profitable illegal and unregulated product of weed.

RELATED: Climate Change and the Caribou

I would argue that, first and foremost, the problem of an unregulated and illegal agricultural industry taking over our public lands speaks to the need for increased funding and support to the National Forest Service, the BLM, and other federal agencies tasked with safeguarding our public land. Additionally, evidence collected at these sites indicates that these are not Mom and Pop weed plots being planted by displaced Vermonters who stayed behind after a Phish concert in Big Sur. Rather, these plots are being funded and maintained by cartels and major criminal organizations.

If you are interested in reading a really well researched article on the subject, I'd suggest a recent piece by Josh Harkinson for Mother Jones. It includes some incredibly grim videos that show the damage of illegal weed production on public lands, and really digs deep into all the complicated and terrible details of the problem. If you are interested in this topic, yet another of the threats being leveled at our public lands, then you owe it to yourself to take a look.

What's your take on the impact marijuana cultivation has on public lands?

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The Environmental Impact of Marijuana Cultivation On Public Lands