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ELK — Deep in a private Mendocino Coast forest, trees and brush give way to terraced clearings, miles of crisscrossing black irrigation tubing and campsites littered with cooking pans, empty food and beer cans, sleeping bags and toxic pesticides. They are the remnants of a marijuana garden where a multi-agency law enforcement effort last year seized more than 8,000 plants.

The environmental damage here is a microcosm of what’s happening nationwide as illegal pot cultivation continues to thrive despite decades of eradication efforts. Marijuana operations claiming to be medicinal, and thus legal in California, also are expanding exponentially, largely without regulation.

Marijuana growers have clear cut forests, eroded hillsides, dammed, polluted and sucked dry streams and poisoned wildlife. It’s not uncommon to find dead animals near pot gardens, wildlife officials say.

“This is probably the worst environmental crime I have ever seen in my life. It is literally ripping out the resources of this state,” said California Fish and Wildlife Capt. Nathaniel Arnold, who heads the department’s marijuana enforcement team.

Nationally, more than 4 million marijuana plants were seized last year from outdoor gardens according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Of those, almost two-thirds, 2.7 million, were found in California. Many more plants are being grown for alleged medicinal uses and some of those pot growers are guilty of the same environmental crimes as illegal cultivators, according to regulatory agencies charged with protecting natural resources.

The pot gardens are of particular concern now, as California’s worst drought in decades drags on and water becomes increasingly precious. Pot plants are thirsty, requiring an average of 6 gallons a day each, according to wildlife officials. Some marijuana advocates say water use is much less than that estimate, while others say it can be nearly three times as much, depending on the size of the plant and where it is being grown. That adds up to billions of gallons and, in some watersheds, insufficient or poor water quality for fish, undoing millions of dollars in work aimed at restoring endangered species.

“It’s a huge, huge impact. It’s been listed as a very high threat and stressor in our recent recovery plans for coho salmon and steelhead,” said Rick Rogers, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Marijuana farming, unlike other types of agriculture, is mostly unregulated and growers, including purported medicinal producers, often operate outside the law. They’ve bulldozed hilltops without permits, illegally dammed streams to supply water to their plants and used pesticides that are so dangerous they’re not sold in this country.

The state’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting reported dismantling 89 illegal dams or reservoirs used to irrigate pot gardens in 2013.

Fish and Wildlife officials last year removed 129 illegal dams, officials said.

Water and wildlife officials say they’re outnumbered by pot growers and can’t investigate all the complaints they receive, which can ramp up this time of year as the harvest and clipping season arrives.

Cases that have been investigated include three water diversions on one tributary to the Navarro River in Comptche, west of Ukiah.

The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board recently reached an agreement with a landowner who rented his property to pot growers who bulldozed a hilltop. He’s required to pay $56,404 in penalties and repair the damage, expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Rogers and others say the problem is only getting worse as people seek to cash in on the “new gold rush” that is marijuana production.

The boom in medical pot farms has led to a decline in pot prices, which in turn has caused people to grow even more to make up for their income losses, further exacerbating the problem, state and federal law enforcement and environmental officials say.

Both public and private lands are suffering as a result.

Following a massive crackdown on public lands in 2011, there appears to have been a shift toward trespass operations on privately owned timberlands, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said.

“We’re certainly seeing private timber companies being the victims of the most egregious grows,” he said.

They include Mendocino Redwood Co. forest land, where on Saturday a dozen armed workers in camouflage removed 13 helicopter slingloads of trash, each weighing between 300 and 500 pounds, said Paul Trouette, whose Lear Asset Management, a private security company, conducted the cleanup.

The cleanup crew Saturday was armed because marijuana growers have been known to shoot at people who come near their gardens, including law enforcement officers, hikers and landowners.

On Wednesday, Trinity County sheriff’s deputies fired on an armed man who raised his weapon toward them in a marijuana garden in the Shasta-Trinity Forest.

Law enforcement seized 4,655 weapons from marijuana gardens nationwide last year, according to the DEA.

Saturday’s cleanup operation was funded by a state Fish and Wildlife grant to the Mendocino County Blacktail Association, a nonprofit hunting and preservation organization to which Trouette belongs and currently leads as president. Trouette said he abstained from voting on the cleanup contract the hunting group awarded to his firm. He said he expects to restore about seven sites with the $78,244 grant.

Few others are available to hire for cleanup on private properties, Trouette said. State regulators did not know of others, besides the mostly volunteer, nonprofit High Sierra Volunteer Trail Group, based in Fresno.

The Jere Melo Foundation also was involved with the forest land cleanup Saturday. Melo, a timberland manager and former Fort Bragg mayor, was gunned down in 2011 by a mentally disturbed man while investigating reports of trespassing in the forest near Fort Bragg.

The sheer volume of marijuana being grown is exacting a heavy toll on public lands, as well. In 2013, 209,594 marijuana plants were eradicated from Bureau of Land Management properties in California, officials said. The U.S. Forest Service reported more than a million plants were eradicated from federal forest land last year.

The federal forest land figures for seized plants are up slightly from last year but only about half what it was in 2010, before the concerted crackdown on pot growing in national forests.

The problem has garnered widespread attention and generated legislative efforts.

“Large trespass marijuana operations endanger the public with violence and threats of wildfires, pollute streams and wetlands, poison wildlife, fund criminal drug trafficking organizations and undo significant federal, state and private investment in the landscape,” Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, wrote in a recent letter to U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, urging her to focus enforcement efforts on trespassing marijuana growers.

Huffman is among the state and federal lawmakers who have sponsored legislation that includes ways to help fund cleanups.

More needs to be done to repair and safeguard forests, said Madeleine Melo, Jere Melo’s widow and head of the foundation that bears his name.

She noted that myriad agencies have some funding for cleanups, but it’s insufficient and the efforts are fragmented. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has just 396 law enforcement officers statewide and only 10 are dedicated to marijuana, Capt. Arnold said.

“I think there’s not enough funding to find the gardens and take them out,” Melo said.

Melo said there needs to be a concentrated, cohesive plan. She thinks the governor should give the affected agencies the authority to create a coalition to combat marijuana’s environmental problems.

“Give them the authority to treat it like any other disaster,” she said.

Others, however, say enforcement is futile. It has so far failed to discourage marijuana production or avert the growing environmental problems associated with cultivation, noted Mendocino County Supervisors John Pinches and Dan Hamburg. They suggest legalizing and regulating the industry, much like alcohol.

“It’s kind of a fool’s errand” to continue to spend money on eradication, Hamburg said.

“The solution is legalization. You’re not going to eliminate the demand for marijuana. People love it,” Pinches said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com.