Article by Trevor Hughes, USA Today
Sgt. Kerry Ireland leans out the open door of the circling helicopter, his hand pointing down at the emerald-green plants growing in neat rows beneath a canopy of trees.
“There you go, there’s one,” he yells over the thumping blades and whistling wind as the pilot holds the ship in a tight turn.
Deep in Northern California’s national forest and miles from the nearest paved road, someone has illegally planted hundreds of marijuana plants. In the helicopter’s rear seat, Deputy Kyle Holt checks the GPS tracker in his lap to make sure the coordinates match the location, and they fly off in search of the next illegal grow. And the next.
They’re flying all day, but there are so many farms they could do this all summer long — finding spots of land cleared for cannabis cultivation that pockmark thousands of acres of forested mountains.
While these helicopter flights are an annual exercise for Ireland and his team, this year they’re bringing along something new: a recently enacted county law requiring cannabis growers to meet tough new regulations of the kind normally followed by traditional farmers and business owners.
Long before it enters the consumer market, pot grown by illegal operations — often on public land — is leaving deep marks on California’s already stressed landscape. Redwood and pine groves are scraped bare by bulldozers, and ponds turn green after over-fertilized water feeds algae blooms. The large, hidden farms tap already low rivers, dirty the drinking water and pollute important fisheries.