Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Pot Farmers Leave Scars on the Land, so do Professional Land Managers

Credit: University of Miami
Recently, a couple months back that is, the News reports came out around the Autumn of 2012 that revealed how environmentally destructive California's numerous Pot Farms can potentially be to the all the State Parks and National Forests. The problem is that the Farmers behind these Pot Farms are recklessly clearing land, creating illegal diversion of streams and other creeks for irrigation purpose, there are countless uses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides which pollute both land and water and kill wildlife. And of course not to mention all the trash and other refuse they leave behind on the land itself. But it's the land clearing that has the longest lasting impact. It may take over a century for the scars to disappear and even that is never a guarantee. Disruption of the mycorrhizal grid system underground may put off any healthy growth and recovery. 

A couple days ago, Biologist Richard Halsey of the California Chaparral Institute posted a picture of an area of the Hwy 74 Idyllwild Grade that I hadn't seen in a while. This was after I had posted some historical photos taken from the Riverside County Museum website of old pictures of the San Jacinto Mountains on his page. We were making comparisons to how the land has changed from the past up to the present day. Here's the map he posted of the region on that Hwy 74 that crosses Strawberry Creek.

Credit: Richard Halsey & Google Maps

You can actually go to Google Maps your self and play around with this map, but there are some interesting features of scars on the landscape I wish to point out. First the ones hidden, but visible on closer inspection.

Google Maps

Strawberry Creek Bridge on Hwy 74
Now as you look at that map, here is an explanation for you to get your bearings. This Satellite is looking down from East (at the bottom) and west (at the top of the map). Strawberry Creek is that loop in the Highway 74 at the top. The green densely vegetated strip from that loop in the highway us Strawberry Creek coming out of Idyllwild in higher elevations on the right side of the map. This is a close up link of the loop in the Highway 74 HERE . Now if you zoom out and on a wider angle and follow the Creek on the map north towards the direction of Idyllwild which would be moving up the creek away from the highway, there is an old homestead dirt road on the west side of this creek. It's blocked off with boulders and cannot be accessed by vehicle. The road finally dead ends at a large Canyon Live Oak Tree. Now on that map, take a visual across that creek (you'd be heading east if on foot) from that point and look up the mountainside on Google Earth and magnify the image by clicking on the Zoom feature. You should see this here -> a terraced hillside Pot Farm or at least a very old one. You can actually Zoom in much closer and get a better idea of the scars left by the Pot Farm Terracing Details from I believe decades ago, although it still somehow looks to be in use still from the vigorous plant growth. You will see all the trails leading up to it and leading away in other directions. Possibly some trails are escape routes or even irrigation corridors for siphoning off water from Strawberry or some other upper elevation creek or water source which is necessary for the gravity feed scheme of irrigation. I remember this from way back a long time ago, but it is interesting that the physical damage done still remains. I couldn't find any news from the raid if there was one. Maybe this is still being used, I have no idea. But I often pick up these type anomalies from time to time when I'm searching for things that intrigue my curiosity on a topic of nature. 

Credit: trails.com
In San Diego County I also use to run into these Pot Farms, active or abandoned. Some I found on Guatay Mountain off of Olde Hwy 80 when I went searching for some viable Tecate Cypress (Cupressus forbesii). Guatay Mountain is about as old growth a plant community you'd ever want to bushwack in. This area has a strange reputation for never being burnt in a large brush fire. That would certainly explain the very old growth of all Chaparral which look more like trees than common brush. Last time I was there before moving here in 2005, I found that someone had cut a fresh trail into the first grove of Tecate Cypress above the Highway. Along the way I saw freshly buried white 1&1/2 inch PVC irrigation pipe. Hmmmm, needless to say I didn't stay long. Stuff like that spooks me. To bad, because that area had some of the most beautiful old growth healthy looking Tecate Cypress trees I've ever seen and the seed source was wonderful. Oh well, some descendants are now in El Cajon in scattered localities. *smile*

Would you like to know what what else you'll find in those old growth forests of Tecate Cypress up on Guatay Mountain ? Well, when you are out bushwacking up there in and around the existing forest pockets, you will stumble upon numerous examples of small Tecate Cypress seedlings of varying ages throughout the area, just like the one here in the picture by the U.S. Forest Service. Yes I know, I've heard all the old wives tales repeated on how ONLY FIRE can cause or trigger germination and that is why prescribed burning is important and necessary for these areas. This untrue philosophy is often parroted by an ignorant public who often comment on fire stories in the Newspaper headlines. Never underestimate the power of propaganda. But so much for that theory when you see these seedlings for yourself. Yes, of course the Cypress cones do burst open and release perhaps millions of seeds which produce possible 10s of 1000s of seedlings which will all compete for later establishment and regenerate a new forest. But that doesn't explain the seedling presence in these old growth Tecate/Chaparral settings. Perhaps the cones open during extremely hot weather periods. But I also saw the first time I was there some little small grey brown bird pecking at some of these cones. Unfortunately I have no clue as to what type of bird it was. However, perhaps some seeds do escape and make their way to just the right location and germinate successfully. I do know that the bird however, wasn't a ScrubJay or Woodpecker. Those would be the obvious choices. But it was interesting to find all manner of differing aged Tecate Cypress in an old growth setting as this.

Photo Credit: Riverside County Museum
Idyllwild Grade Rd at the turn of the century. Notice the horse drawn wagon  navigating the old dirt road and passing along what looks to be a previous brushfire ? No doubt some Cowboy flicked his home made Clint Cigar stub into the bush when he was through with it. Humans never change. Also notice the thick complete cover of the old growth chaparral which still exists in this photo before any government mismanagement policy of firebreak construction. Okay, back to the Dry Creek Canyon of the San Jacinto Mountains and the old Idyllwild Grade Road at the turn of the Century. We could say the same thing about land scaring that was done a century ago and still present. The present Land Management practices have not changed much from those old historical fire and land management policies  which at the time thought to be  the Good Science, but in reality nothing more than ignorant science of almost a century ago. Newer findings have proven these methods to be a waste of both time and money. Much of the early and present day control or prescribed burns are done in the middle of nowhere fare away from any housing or other commercial development. There are no immediate threats to civilization where there are only wildlife present. 

Former Idyllwild Biologist
Tom Roberts
now retired
and Author
I remember back when I still lived up in Idyllwild. I became friends with Steve Raybould who was the prescribe Burns boss who lived in Alandale north of Pine cove and Wildlife Biologist, Tom Roberts who as always at odds in some political infighting going on within the forestry. Tom was responsible for much of the restoration of grasslands back into Garner Valley which if you saw an old photo of it when it was horribly mismanaged, looked more like a sandy wash you'd see in the deserts below. He also was instrumental with building that wildlife pond at the east end of the Valley in between Fobes Ranch Rd and Morris Ranch Rd on the north side of Hwy 74 and across the other side of the creek bed. I noticed on the Google satellite photo that the pond is now dry. It was somehow spring fed before, but things change. I also notice that just next to it in the photo is some Equestrian Club. Probably those Horseback riders based in Anza, called the Adenostoma sparsifolium Adventurers! *smile* Below is a quote from an interview of Tom and why he left the forest service who he was always at odds with and their *cough-cough* business partners who wanted to develop the mountains even more, like putting the present Anza Hamilton High School in the middle of Garner Valley. I remember sitting in his office in the old U.S. forest Service building which is now the local paper TownCrier headquarters, and listening as he related some of the stupid idiocy the Forest Service was becoming. In fact the book author interview below pretty much sums up some of the stuff he and I talked about back then. 
Reporter Mary Rees: 
"Why did you leave the Forest Service ?"
 Tom Roberts:
"The Forest Service was getting very politicized during the Reagan years. It was frustrating to be in a conservation position in any agency that had become very commodity-driven. Most of the Forest Service employees are driven by a stewardship mission to wisely use the resources. You can log old growth trees if you leave some of the trees for the spotted owls; you can graze cattle if you leave enough forage for deer to eat. But there was pressure to over-utilize both."
Tom Roberts must be 66 years old by now. He was 63 at the time of the 2010 interview and his latest book release. "Drake's Bay". He and Steve Raybould co-authored a couple of Forest Service publications together. I don't know what ever became of Steve, he was transferred to Los Padres National forest region. But here are some examples of their work with the understanding of things at the time related to prescribed burns. Things sure have come a long way since then. And yet with newer understanding with how nature works, the old school ideology prevails. The report has mostly to do with safety and protection more than anything. I will say one thing. Tom and Steve were always critical of the California Division of Forestry and their mismanagement of Control Burns which were well known for getting out of control and damaging precious habitat and destroying natural processes of tree movement into Chaparral country. I'll have a post on that when I come out to visit in April. Prime example is up on Keen Camp Summit on Hwy 74. There is actually a side by side example of Prescribe Burned land next to a 1982 wildfire Mountain Center burn which was mostly on private land ownership. The private land was left untouched, and by that I mean no trees planted to replace any lost. There are quadruple the large Jeffrey Pine and Coulter on these lands where Ceanothus chaparral grew up around the trees, than the Forest Serviced Managed lands. Do a quick Google at Jct hwy 74 & Keen Camp Rd which leads to "Living Free Pet Sanctuary" and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Photo Credit: Riverside Historical Museum
Same Idyllwild Grade Rd (Hwy 74), but now notice all the extensive firebreak construction. Idyllwild is surrounding by an extensive network of firebreaks. In the 1990s, a brushfire which started in Bee Canyon which is down stream from this photo in the distance and to the right caused a major evacuation of Idyllwild. No amount of firebreaks would have saved anything. They actually got lucky with a shift in wind from the west to a southeasterly monsoonal flow which pushed the fire back onto itself. Still, the prescribed burn and firebreak construction meant absolutely nothing in the end. 

Photo Credit: Richard Halsey

These scars almost never heal and scaring of canyon ridge lines offer nothing of value in the wilderness areas of Chaparral country within any National Forest. A firefighter would have to be an idiot to make a stand in such a location, especially given these later day Mega-fire weather conditions which have been exacerbated by the climate change variables. These older scars from the historical photos from Riverside Historical Museum are still present as you can see for yourself on a drive along hwy 74.
Here is the latest Fire Management and Chaparral Controversy subject matter that Chaparral Biologist Richard Halsey has been presenting to the public. This link is the report by the California Board of Forestry & Fire Protection. 
"Vegetation Treatment Program Environmental Impact Report" (VTPEIR)
Further reference reading on Land mismanagement and scaring of landscape

Chaparral Institute: Fire Science
Chaparral Institute: Protecting Your Home From fire
United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner Eastern District Of California Environmental Charges Filed In Marijuana Cultivation Cases
Are California's Pot Farms Bad for the Planet?
Ventana Wild - "The Fire Scar"


  1. Wow! I never realized that there were pot farms up near Idyllwild. Of course, I've never come across one (thank goodness)! One time hubby and I drove up 101 along the coast and took a road through the Santa Cruz mountains, going east. We were both so spooked that we nearly got out of the car and kissed the ground when we were outta there! We both picked up on some sinister force in those hills (probably pot farms...) We have NEVER driven back through those mountains after that!

    1. I have stumbled upon countless pot farms and always could recognize the signs in the bush long before I got to the actual farm. Very spooky places and these jerks play for keeps. They are Amoral and would not hesitate one bit taking another life to protect their criminal activity.


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