Robert Townsend/California WatchPaul Trouette (right) briefs a cleanup crew before entering an area where illegal marijuana growers have left garbage and toxic items.
Early on a recent Saturday morning, two men wearing camouflage fatigues parked a pickup truck deep in the Mendocino County backwoods. They checked their gear. Industrial trash bags, weapons, water, food and first aid in place, they were ready to descend the hillside. A quick radio check-in to their team leader, and they were off.
The illegal campsites were more than 1,000 feet below. The steep grade of the mountainside, along with loose dirt and rocks sliding underfoot, forced them to slow down. Occasionally, they lowered their gear to a point below and slid downhill. After an hour, they made it to the campsite.
“Might as well get started and get it done,” said one of the men, Ken, who asked that only his first name be used to protect his safety.
The men were there to reclaim an area of Mendocino woodlands polluted by a large marijuana garden split into two locations. It wasn’t an easy task. They worked through heat, poison oak and biting insects. They also worked through the knowledge that angry armed growers might return.
Robert Townsend/California WatchGarbage is strewn around an illegal campsite in Mendocino County before cleanup.
Ken and his colleagues worked methodically, taking inventory of everything as they went. The group cleaned up 20 sleeping bags, poison containers, propane tanks, a BB rifle and ammunition, 9 mm ammunition, a crossbow, foodstuffs, cooking utensils, and other camping necessities. Then came the oddities: a solar panel stolen from a nearby cabin that was hooked up to a battery charger, a toy car, a handmade flute carved in a phallic shape and even a novelty trophy fish that sings when you activate it.
Last weekend, the sun was reaching its zenith as they continued to sweat through the labor. After several hours, they sat and had a quick lunch, talking only a little. With the trash bundled and secured in an area accessible to a waiting helicopter, they began the slow ascent to where they left the pickup. It took two hours to make it back up the hill.
The next morning went smoothly. The teams hiked back into the two campsites and awaited the helicopter. It took the helicopter about 45 minutes and four trips to remove the garbage from the mountain to a truck parked in a safe location.
Treacherous mountainsides, dust in their lungs and ticks aside, everyone in the group was smiling.
They had taken inventory of everything they found. Garbage, irrigation lines and camp supplies were gathered together and bundled into industrial contractor bags or cargo nets. The operation removed five contractor bags from the site, each carrying 125 to 150 pounds of trash. They also removed more than 850 pounds of irrigation tubing and pipes. After the last load, the truck took the garbage and items to be properly disposed of, recycled or donated.
Robert Townsend/California WatchA container of strychnine, a strong poison, was found at one site.
The unusual cleanup was organized by the Northern California Wildlands Reclamation Coalition, a group of Mendocino County residents who have banded together to repair the wreckage inflicted by illegal marijuana farms and return the area’s forests to their natural state. With the approval of local law enforcement, they remove the plastics, batteries, poisons, piping, tubing, garbage, and other environmental hazards and eyesores – attempting to leave the woodlands as pristine as possible.
Paul Trouette, a Mendocino County Fish and Game commissioner and coffee shop owner in Willits, established the group last year – inspired by an idea that has been growing since 2003.
As president of the nonprofit Mendocino County Blacktail Association, Trouette and his friends had grown increasingly concerned about the harm being done to local wildlife in and around these grow sites. They also were worried about the dangers of hunters who could easily stumble upon armed growers or life-threatening booby traps.
On grow sites and camps, cleanup crews find pesticides and other poisons intended for rodents and deer. With many illegal gardens having hundreds of marijuana plants, the amount of spilled poison has had a dramatic and cascading impact on wildlife and the ecosystem. A rat or deer eats the poison, gets sick, slows down and becomes easy prey to hawks and other predators. The predatory animal then dies and is eaten by scavenging animals, such as coyotes, foxes or vultures, which absorb the poison as well.
The Wildlands Reclamation Coalition successfully completed its first cleanup operation June 12, months after the group started planning and securing funding and law enforcement support for the project. The team is made up of military veterans, former police officers, hunters, bankers, laborers and salesmen. They are all locals who share the belief that large-scale illegal growing practices are a danger to people and the environment.
Robert Townsend/California WatchThe team assembles after the cleanup operation.
Every team member carries a gun: pistols, shotguns or AR-15 semi-automatic rifles. Arming themselves is a necessity – they might encounter armed growers, wild boars or black bears, they said.
After an area is deemed safe and no longer active, the cleanup crew will get to work.
“I was proud to be involved with these men, as they all acted professionally and with safety as their No. 1 priority,” said Charles Raasch, a team member and ex-law enforcement officer.
Raasch said he was motivated to become part of the team because he is an avid outdoorsman who has a love for the area and its beauty.
“These beautiful wildlife habitats were taken over by criminals who care nothing for the mess they make or the damage they do to the surrounding ecosystem. The stories I hear from these individuals, of family hunting trips ruined … added to the motivation to help clean up,” he said.
Raasch was unaware of how extensive an impact marijuana grow sites have on an area. Like others, he knew about law enforcement raids that made it into the news.
“But what we don’t read about is the aftermath,” Raasch said. “I knew nothing of this, and like most citizens, I assumed the law enforcement agency involved … would do something to clean this up. To my surprise, they do not. No one does.”
Trouette was able to secure $10,000 from the Mendocino County district attorney’s office and $5,000 from the Fish and Game Commission. The success of this last operation will help to determine whether further funding will be provided.
“This was done professionally and quickly,” Trouette said. “I have a feeling that we will receive more grants from the Fish and Game Commission because this is definitely related to wildlife enhancement and preservation.”
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman has been supportive of the group’s efforts.
“He was very cooperative and helpful in getting one of our radios linked to the sheriff’s dispatch in case an emergency occurred,” Trouette said. “He trusts us.”