Environmental Groups: Humboldt Beyond Capacity for Marijuana Grows

Humbolt Cannabis

The Emerald Triangle is awash with cannabis, environmental groups are saying the land cannot sustain more grows.


Humboldt County is awash with marijuana. This is a known fact, disputed by nobody, a rare point of complete concurrence between the police and the cannabis-growing erstwhile outlaws who have spent the last few decades among the verdant California north coast’s redwoods engaged in a game of hide-and-seek with helicopters.

Humboldt, is in California’s legendary cannabis basket, the Emerald Triangle, where a significant portion of the state’s estimated 13 million pound annual marijuana harvest is grown. Humboldt County has at least 2,300 commercial-level marijuana farms, as per the tally of permit applications received by county planning honchos last year. This is enough to grow at least a few billion dollars’ worth, by some estimates. (There are absolutely thousands more, perhaps as many as 12,000 in total, of varying levels of legality and transparency.)

And Humboldt County is the epicenter of a mad, marijuana legalization-fueled land rush, with ambitious speculators shelling out millions of dollars for a few acres of what was once modest farmland, visions of cannabis super complexes in their heads and on their investor decks.

All this is quite a bit to handle. For the area’s ecosystem, it’s altogether too much to handle, according to a consortium of five environmental groups, who have declared the county at capacity and are petitioning local decision-makers to not allow any more cannabis farms until further notice.

Currently, Humboldt County is offering permits only to medical-marijuana operations. That could soon change. California voters legalized recreational marijuana for all adults 21 and over in last November’s election. Sales will begin sometime in January. Humboldt is currently weighing whether to extend permits to recreational marijuana outfits as well, and accept new permit applications for the first time since December 2016.

Doing that would be an ecological catastrophe, according to local environmental activists. The local chapter of the Audubon Society, Humboldt Baykeeper, the Environmental Protection Information Center, the North Coast Environmental Center and the California Native Plant Society’s North Coast have all signed onto a letter sent to local elected officials declaring marijuana cultivation a mortal environmental risk.

“The single biggest threat to our environment right now has been unregulated cannabis,” Environmental Protection Information Center executive director Natalynne DeLapp told EcoWatch last year. “In the last 20 years we’ve seen a massive exponential growth in cannabis production in the hills of Humboldt County and we’ve seen really devastating environmental effects.”

As The Eureka Times-Standard reported, the environmental groups want approval of new permitted commercial marijuana grows halted until the county can get a handle on illegal, unpermitted grows — exactly the kind of operations that are draining creeks in fragile watersheds, logging hilltops without care or concern, and killing salmon, rodents, birds and other wildlife with toxic fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides.

“… [U]ntil we deal with the existing environmental damage and the vast number of operations not in compliance, we should not increase the potential environmental risk by permitting any new grows,” the letter reads in part.

The county gets very little in the way of direct, tangible benefit in exchange for all this environmental degradation. There is little doubt that most of Humboldt’s marijuana flows out of state to supply the black market in faraway places like New York City. The same report, released in August, that tabulated the state’s annual marijuana haul at 13 million pounds could account for only 2.5 million pounds sold in-state.

And Humboldt authorities have long since signaled defeat in this struggle. By their own admission, county code and law enforcement have the ability to take action at only about “1 percent” of the county’s outlaw cannabis grows. Thus, the argument goes, opening up the floodgates to even more legitimate outfits would simply tax the already-struggling ecosystem far beyond its capacity.

There is little doubt that all this is driven by base motives for profit. “New people came and got money signs in their eyes,” said Stephen Dillon, a longtime Humboldt resident and the executive director of the Humboldt Sun Growers Guild, a group of local cannabis farmers seeking to grow sustainably, in an interview with EcoWatch. “A lot of the new people coming in have absolutely no understanding of the creeks and the roads and the ecosystem they’re in.”

The clear consensus is that we have too much weed in Humboldt. How much, then, is just enough? Less than what we have. So who gets to grow it — and if there’s someone breaking the rules, who will stop them? These are the questions that could kill off ancient old-growth forests well before they fall victim to climate change.

TELL US, do you think the cannabis industry places enough focus on environmental concerns?

Chris Roberts has written about medical cannabis, drug policy, and legalization ever since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009, with bylines for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and SF Weekly. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cbloggy.

1 Comment

  1. Christian Barrett

    October 19, 2017 at 12:33 pm

    Being in the industry, and working with multiple cultivators. I don’t believe we focus enough of the environment, when cultivating at a commercial scale. There are some cultivators that do, but most do not. Many are down-right destructive to the environment, while others believe “they” have little impact with their disregard, but don’t consider how many others are doing the same in their area, or on the same stream, and combined does have a significant negative impact. In general, and I know a lot of people with only this as an option. Cultivating commercially, and the permitting requirements, is really only doable out of the hills, close to main roads, possibly utilities, and generally not on land zoned TPZ (timber production zone).

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