The Green Rush: Economic Boom–Ecological Bust

Marijuana in pink

Photo by Kym Kemp

The following piece is a guest article by Kyle Keegan excerpted from a piece which first appeared this fall in the Trees Foundation Newsletter.

“The only possible guarantee of the future is responsible behavior in the present. When supposed future needs are used to justify misbehavior in the present, as is the tendency with us, then we are both perverting the present and diminishing the future.” Wendell Berry


Red Dye Diesel spilled in Hacker Creek 2008
Photo: courtesy State Water Resources Control Board
Changing Times…
The days of Fall have returned to Northern California, and in the remote hills of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties, a well-rooted black market economy is in full swing; cutting, hanging, drying, and manicuring California’s most lucrative cash crop–cannabis. As local and state economies falter, prospects of the now illegal but thriving cannabis industry have even the most skeptical government officials wondering if marijuana could be our region’s saving grace to ease the ills of a rocky economic future. Meanwhile, the possibility of California’s citizens voting to legalize the sale and distribution of marijuana in the upcoming 2012 election season has growers wondering what their fate will be.

Most rural and small city communities located in what has been called the “Emerald Triangle” region have seen an exponential increase in marijuana production since the passing of Proposition 215, creating a flood of marijuana on the open market–driving prices downward. The drop in price has perpetuated the production of even more cannabis in order for producers to maintain their income. In the mean time: continuous streams of soil and fertilizers arrive on semi-trucks to feed the ever hungry commercial industry, bulldozers level flats for massive greenhouses, diesel trucks rumble up remote backcountry roads to supply off-grid indoor grows, radio ads dominate the airwaves promoting the latest snake oil remedy for bigger buds and larger harvests, and small town streets are lined with migrant workers looking for seasonal jobs. Like the Gold Rush days of the past… and many of us can feel the uncertainty of changing times.

The Boom-Bust Phenomenon

Northern California has a history of environmental exploitation and its rich natural resources have seduced profit seekers for almost two, fast-paced centuries now. Tales of high mountain streams full of gold, endless forests, and rivers pulsing with abundant salmon runs once spread across the globe and brought with it the hopes of a better life to the newly arrived inhabitants of this region. Their stories are those of people who created cultures and economies that relied upon the depletion of the resource base for which they ultimately depended on; clean water, top-soil, biodiversity, intact forests and natural beauty. The stories are of economic booms followed by ecological busts.  (read more below)

In a 1991 report, titled “California’s Salmon and Steelhead: The Struggle to Restore an Imperiled Resource,” Scott Downie writes: “But the fragile timberlands proved to be quite finite. In town after town, during the sixties and seventies, mills and businesses failed; populations, like the timber base itself, disappeared. The denuded watersheds, roaded and gullied beyond belief, had meanwhile suffered catastrophic flood events in 1955 and 1964. Unprecedented levels of eroded topsoil and mass wasting had left many areas no longer suitable for growing profitable conifer forests. These lands in turn became subject to sale and subdivision, which fostered a new land development boom in several North Coast areas that still continues. Once again roads and associated drainage problems were predictable elements of the new settlers’ land use practices.”

Environmental and Social Impacts

At the heart of our region’s current economic boom is the cannabis industry, ranging in scale from small “medical” grows, to expansive industrial farms. Because of its illegal nature, marijuana production is more elusive than past industrial practices (logging and fishing) but its ecological repercussions are becoming more apparent. In recent years, North Coast citizens and government agencies have attempted to quantify the environmental impacts of commercial cannabis production. Of that coverage, most of the national media attention has gone to illegal growing operations on state and federal park lands. Law enforcement has reported that large scale plantations numbering in tens of thousands of plants have resulted in: illegal water diversions, illegal clearing of forest canopy, use of pesticides and rodenticides, killing of wildlife, potential run-off from chemical fertilizers, and large amounts of refuse being left at grow sites. The public has been advised to stay away from these remote areas for their own safety.

Illegal road building in the Lower Salmon Creek watershed that delivered sediment directly into prime Chinook spawning grounds during the 2010 season.
Photo: by Kyle Keegan

While the proliferation of commercial grows on public lands are significant and saddening, the cumulative impacts of marijuana production in nearly every watershed and city block, may be far beyond our comprehension. Below is a brief summary of some of the environmental and social impacts associated with the marijuana industry.

Energy Consumption and Carbon Emissions

The carbon emissions (C02) from industrial marijuana production are perhaps the least quantifiable, yet could be viewed as the most significant aspect of the industry on a global scale.

Growers in remote locations often bring fossil fuel powered machinery into otherwise quiet and unpolluted areas to run equipment necessary for production. Off-grid indoor grows rely on large diesel generators to power high-intensity lights, fans, and pumps, while on-grid grows depend on nonrenewable resources to power similar needs. One recent study conducted by Evan Mills, Ph.D. concludes, ” In California, the top-producing state, indoor cultivation is responsible for about 3% of all electricity use or 8% of household use, somewhat higher than estimates previously made for British Columbia. This corresponds to the electricity use of 1 million average California homes, greenhouse-gas emissions equal to those from 1 million average cars, and energy expenditures of $3 billion per year.”

The energy embodied in the production and distribution of: soil, fertilizers, grow pots, water lines, greenhouse plastics, grow lights, fans, water pumps, construction materials and pesticides are often overlooked, as well as the energy and resources used to package and distribute cannabis. Local refuse disposal sites are inundated with used soil bags, broken fans, used water lines, discarded greenhouse plastic, and fertilizer containers–requiring yet more energy to process and ship to distant land-fills. Metal halide bulbs and ballasts used for indoor growing contain hazardous metals and toxic substances and their disposal can create potential challenges.

Water Use and Diversions

Cannabis is a thirsty plant, and with the increased use of water to supply a growing industry, many communities have witnessed the effects of impaired watersheds. The pumping of water during dry summer months can leave salmonids and other water-bound animals without any chance for survival and may be pushing local species such as coho salmon, to the brink of extinction.

Diesel Spills

Diesel spills related to off-grid indoor marijuana grows have contaminated area streams and spring sources. In 2008, the Hacker Creek spill in the Salmon Creek watershed sent approximately 900 gallons of diesel into a tributary utilized by salmonids while polluting the domestic water of downstream residents.

Nutrient Overloads

The excessive use of fertilizers (nitrates and phosphates), coupled by low flows and high water temperatures, has increased the incidence of Blue Green Algae blooms (cyanobacteria) in main stem rivers and estuaries–threatening both people, their pets, and aquatic wildlife.

Increased Sedimentation

The effects of sediment pollution caused by rural dirt-roads have been well documented. A report titled: “Rural Roads: A Construction and Maintenance Guide for California Landowners” states, “Poorly located, designed, or maintained roads are the primary source of water quality degradation in rural watersheds.”

Many of our backcountry road networks were established during the logging era and were not engineered or properly placed. These legacy roads were adopted by newly created rural subdivisions during the late 60’s and early 70’s and are now burdened by increased traffic associated with the cannabis industry. High traffic and heavy vehicles (diesel, propane, soil and heavy equipment deliveries) especially during winter months, contributes to excessive sedimentation of nearby streams and rivers impacting anadromous fish populations and aquatic resources.

Pesticides, Fungicides, and Rodenticides

Stream side grow related garbage and fertilizers
Photo: by Kyle Keegan

The use of toxic chemicals to combat pests and diseases on cannabis plants may contaminate nearby water and soil while posing a threat to consumers who smoke the product. Rodenticides can travel up the food chain, affecting the health of larger predators such as owls, coyotes, foxes, and bears.

Fire Danger

Local fire departments have reported an increase of fires due to generators and/or the faulty wiring of indoor grows, which increases the risk of wildfires.

Urbanization and Habitat Fragmentation

With increased population growth related to the cannabis industry, many small communities are experiencing the industrialization of their watersheds. Unchecked road building, leveling of large flats for greenhouses and illegal clear-cuts to open areas for planting, have become rampant. Illegal road building has contributed to excessive sedimentation of streams while also decreasing the ability of landscapes to infiltrate water through creating impervious surfaces. Excessive development in these remote watersheds contributes to habitat fragmentation and urbanization.

Inflated Land Prices

The marijuana industry has played a significant role in inflating land prices here on the North Coast. While this can be seen as an attribute (land taxes support the county), this phenomenon has also created problems. The current trend of disproportionate value that has been placed on rural properties has forced many new buyers to exploit their land-base in order to pay off debt. This has fueled the increase of land being developed with a short-term “factory-like” mindset that perpetuates further land degradation and community polarization. The same phenomenon can be seen in cities and towns where housing and rental shortages are created by filling empty homes with cannabis plants, rather than people.

The cycle of high turnover rates by new landowners does not allow people to establish the social ties and trust that make for strong, lasting community. High land prices have virtually put an end to the possibility of new, young families, seeking to settle into now aging communities.

Threats to Localization

The “over-specialization” of the cannabis economy has created another silent threat to the Emerald Triangle region–the creation of a “mono-economy”. Mono-economies place individuals and communities in direct competition with each other while depending on an “export-based” commodity to keep the local economy alive. This system requires that most of our goods and services be imported into our rural areas.
Mono-economies are also subject to increased risks of centralization by outside or local interests.

In preparing for a future of energy descent (peak oil), empowered communities worldwide are recognizing that the diversification of local economies through a process called “localization” is imperative in order to create community resiliency. Localization is only possible through implementing a diverse economic base that favors cooperation over competition. Furthering the homogenization of our local economy will undoubtedly place us in a vulnerable and perhaps catastrophic position in the not too distant future.

The Hidden Costs of Social Pollution

While the marijuana industry has fostered the continued financial support of essential community structures that reflect sustainability, such as: local radio stations, hospice, private schools, environmental organizations, fire departments, and community gathering places; the illegality of the trade has simultaneously disempowered individuals and caused communities to turn our backs to: violence, reckless development, vanishing species, and teen death. Issues such as these may be seen as symptoms of “social pollution” caused by an illegal industry that perpetuates fear and paranoia.

The deleterious effects of social pollution have silenced the collective will to act in ways that protect the overall health of our communities. This mode of thinking can become so strong that it over-rides ones ability to reason or make just decisions. The inability of community members to be able to act “freely”, based on fears of being “busted”, “turned in” or “untrustworthy”, damages the capacity for communities to prepare for the future.

Corporations are well known for their practice of conducting business on foreign soil, far removed from their actions. The industrial cannabis industry has displayed similar habits in conducting business. In general, the growers with the most exploitative practices tend to conduct operations outside of their “home place.” Outlaw communities that practice an “oath of silence” often become the preferred base of operations for opportunistic profit seekers. In this case, not only do the outsiders exploit the shared community resources, they actively “parasitize” the solidarity formed by the long-term residents of that particular community knowing that the “silence” of its members will assure their safety. This silence often ends up being an enabling act that ultimately feeds into social and environmental degradation.

Social Pollution and Environmental Organizations

Another aspect of “social pollution” has been the lack of action by local non-profit environmental organizations in addressing the effects of the cannabis industry on our shared environment. It is very clear that our cannabis-driven economy has been a source of financial support for some of our most critical and esteemed environmental groups, allowing them to do the necessary (and good) work of challenging industrial timber companies and other threats, while providing vital education and community support. It is my belief that these organizations have averted challenging the cannabis industry out of fears of biting the hand that feeds them. A powerful example of disempowerment fueled by the black market economy.

Recently, EPIC (The Environmental Protection Agency) has opened the dialogue regarding the environmental impacts of commercial cannabis production on public lands through the support of local activists in our area. This is an admirable step forward.

Community-based Proactive Solutions

Honest discussions regarding the marijuana industry have been a difficult topic for many of us to address. As the cultural acceptance of marijuana increases, there are more opportunities for open dialogue. Below are some actions and suggestions to add to this discussion.


Local organizations such as Sanctuary Forest and the Mattole Restoration Council have been forthcoming in their efforts to educate and empower local communities to store and conserve water. Mass storage tanks are becoming common sights in many watersheds and discussions concerning water conservation are encouraged and frequently covered by local media.

With the belief that “An informed consumer drives an ethical market,” a local activist group called “Grow it in the Sun” has taken on efforts to inform distant consumers, dispensaries and media of the impacts associated with indoor cultivation and large-scale outdoor cultivation. Their actions have been gaining support.

Educating growers to build and protect topsoil, conserve water, make compost, control erosion, utilize integrated pest management, and implement permaculture techniques will be necessary to help lessen environmental impacts.

Community Meetings

In my home watershed, we have begun the process of addressing the impacts of industrial marijuana production through community based open-circle discussions. While extremely uncomfortable to participate in, we have started the process of breaking several decades of silence and inaction. Through “peer-pressure,” we have begun to persuade outside exploitative interests that we will no longer enable their actions. We believe in consensus based decision making and the positive influence of education vs. regulation. This is a work in progress and new territory for us.

Minimizing Blue Green Algae Blooms

With the help of local media and garden stores, we can prevent fertilizer pollution. Cover crops (fava beans, vetch, rye, etc.) can be planted after Fall harvests in order to catch and store left-over nutrients on-site and then reincorporated into the soil the following spring. Bioswales can be built below grow sites to help capture excess nutrients.

Educating Heavy Equipment Operators

The ability of any individual (trained or not) to use heavy equipment to alter the natural landscape, poses a serious threat to our watersheds. State/County subsidized (or private) workshops geared towards heavy equipment operators are needed. Workshops would include topics such as: hill slope hydrology, erosion prevention, stability assessment, road re-contouring, culvert placement, armored crossings and most importantly…when to say no.

In the mean time, give your favorite operator a copy of the “Handbook for Forest and Ranch Roads” also available on-line in PDF format.

Diversification of our Economy

Diversity creates resiliency. The further facilitation of the export-dependent cannabis economy is only a temporary economic solution for our communities. Long-term stability will depend on the diversification of our economic base while creating goods and services that we can distribute locally.


Carbon Footprint ad by a local activist group.

Pressure Fuel Delivery Companies

Local fuel delivery companies that knowingly deliver to unsafe fuel tanks must be held accountable. Fuel companies can insist that their customers use secondary fuel tank containment and the proper fittings.

Contact your local Board of Supervisors

With the passage of Proposition 215 and the possibility of legalization, organizations have begun working with local governments to help develop county guidelines to tax and regulate commercial medical grows. County officials need to hear the concerns and solutions put forth by a diversity of citizens in order to make guidelines that include necessary environmental and social protections.

Watersheds are Our Lifeboats

In a world of diminishing ecological health and uncertain economic times, our watersheds that form the natural boundaries, that we call “communities”, have become vitally important to protect and steward. Watersheds are our “lifeboats”–a necessary and irreplaceable link to our future aspirations and survival. The degradation of our home places in
the name of economic prosperity is a cultural problem; it will be corrected only through cultural solutions. We can create diverse and meaningful work that nurtures, restores, and fits into our local ecologies. The boom-bust stories of the past need not be the stories of present and future generations.

Kyle Keegan has lived with his family in the Salmon Creek watershed for the past 15 years and has been actively involved in restoration, environmental education, and local issues pertaining to land stewardship. Kyle can be reached at

(1) ,
(2) Lufkin, Alan, editor. California’s Salmon and Steelhead: The Struggle to Restore an Imperiled Resource. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1991.
(3) Rural Roads: A Construction and Maintenance Guide for California Landowners, Publication 8262 (PDF-on-line),
(4) (5) “The Environmental Costs of Pot”


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