MARIJUANA CROP RUINS MT. DIABLO'S RARE PLANTS
In their most recent trashing of California's environment, pot growers destroyed rare plants on Mount Diablo land that conservationists are buying to protect fragile wildlife and plants.
The growers sneaked onto the 208-acre ranch land in the hills above Concord to hack an opening in a thicket of desert olive, the group Save Mount Diablo said.
The olive plant, a leftover from long ago when the Bay Area resembled a desert, is found only in two or three places in the county.
The pot growers apparently harvested and toted off their cash crop without detection.
No people nor pot plants were around three weeks ago when a rancher stumbled on the mess left behind. Investigators from the Sheriff's Office came out and verified that the site was not booby-trapped before conservationists started the cleanup, said Seth Adams, Save Mount Diablo programs manager.
"It's a shame that even before the purchase of this land is finished, someone or some people would destroy rare plants," Adams said.
Save Mount Diablo received donations from hundreds of people to raise $1.46 million to buy the Mangini Ranch land located south of the upscale Crystyl Ranch housing development.
The land is likely to become part of nearby Mount Diablo State Park.
On Thursday, three volunteers from the conservation group began repairing the type of environmental damage that many California pot growers are leaving behind as they increasingly turn to parks, wilderness, water district lands and other open spaces.
With tighter border controls since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, drug dealers are finding it easier to grow pot in the United States rather than smuggle it in, state and federal authorities say.
The Mount Diablo growers were relatively small-time, growing plants in pots in a clearing some 20 feet long and 12 feet wide.
But they left a significant wound on a fragile mountain area that supports two other rare plants besides the desert olive, which grows an inedible olive.
Jepsons coyote thistle and Hospital Canyon larkspur also live on the edge of the damaged thicket. "These plants are so rare we want to protect the few that are left," Adams said. "This is a biological hot spot because of the diversity of rare plants and animals."
During their repair work, the volunteers dug up plastic pots and an irrigation system that siphoned away creek water that otherwise would have been available to native wildlife and plants.
As he removed commercially enriched soil hauled in by the pot growers, volunteer Dave Sargent quipped, "This gives new meaning to 'potting soil.'"
The crew removed traps meant to kill pests that might have damaged the crop. On Mount Diablo, however, the traps could have killed threatened Alameda whipsnakes that like to hide in thickets.
Botanists have advised the conservation group the desert olive thicket may heal itself and fill in the gap if the area is not disturbed, Adams said
This was one of at least two pot farms discovered in parks or open spaces in Contra Costa County this year, and four in Alameda County, authorities said.
About 75 percent of the marijuana seized during the state's annual Campaign Against Marijuana Planting this year came from parks and public lands, according to Attorney General Bill Lockyer.
It was a record year with nearly 1.6 million plants seized with a street value of $6.7 billion.
Growers also left a path of environmental destruction in the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, where 43,000 plants were seized in August and September in nine locations. No arrests were made.
"These massive plantings are threatening the very mission of our parks: to preserve our natural resources and environment and provide a safe place for visitors," said John Dell'Osso, the Point Reyes chief of interpretation.
To irrigate their crops, growers tapped into local streams, leaving less for federally protected coho salmon and steelhead.
Pesticide runoff from the pot farms may have poisoned creeks and soil.
Park workers also worry that terraces carved into steep slopes are ripe for erosion during winter, possibly polluting creeks and smothering fish spawning areas.
The pot farm caretakers were apparently armed, too, because they left behind gun shells.
Dell'Osso said people who hike remote parks, wildernesses or open spaces should be careful when walking off trail to look out for armed guards or booby traps.
"We tell people if you come across a farm, retreat immediately, get to your vehicle and notify authorities," Dell'Osso said. "Don't try exploring it on your own."
Contra Costa Times (CA)
Copyright: 2006 Knight Ridder