Marijuana Plants Discovered At National Forest

In the green idyll of Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Oregon, more than 90,000 marijuana plants were discovered earlier this month. Park officials now have to cope with the cleanup of the site — and the toxicity caused by an extensive camp of pot farmers and the fertilizers they used. Melissa Block speaks with park ranger Ken Gebhardt about the job ahead.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Earlier this month, bear hunters in Oregon stumbled on what turned out to be the largest marijuana plantation that state has ever seized, by far - more than 91,000 marijuana plants growing in a remote canyon in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, that's in the northeastern corner of the state. Six armed growers were arrested. Police removed or destroyed the pot plants.

But the growers also created an environmental mess and maybe a toxic one. Investigators found hundreds of pounds of chemical fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides. The growers cut down trees and cleared vegetation. Now, the U.S. Forest Service is assessing the damage to wildlife and habitat, and they will be in charge of the cleanup.

Ken Gebhardt is a district ranger for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, and I asked him to describe the scene.

Mr. KEN GEBHARDT (District Ranger, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest): The first thing that I saw when we walked into the canyon, what surprised me was how remote it truly was and how steep it was. And it was a very warm or hot day when we were walking down in there. And, you know, what we saw when we got down into the marijuana grow site was just a, you know, a lot of clearing of vegetation and brush along a stream. We saw soils that had been disturbed in some of the marijuana grow sites.

And those are the things that I saw that came to my mind immediately, especially the vegetation clearing.

BLOCK: Was it clear cut? I mean, how bad was the damage?

Mr. GEBHARDT: No, it wasn't clear cut by any means. I mean, it was just thinned in all the groundcover and all the brush, and there were trees that were cut.

BLOCK: How many trees do you think they took down?

Mr. GEBHARDT: I need to get my folks down there on the river to really give me a good estimate. And that's the whole purpose of putting together this team of specialists, such as fisheries biologists and wildlife biologists and timber specialists that can actually help me evaluate this marijuana grove site and give me a good estimate of what the resource damages truly are, and the potential resource damage that has occurred as a result of this marijuana grow.

BLOCK: Were there science in this area of that there had been people living there, that would have been workers running this camp and they left a lot of stuff behind?

Mr. GEBHARDT: Well, the other thing that we're going to be dealing with in this marijuana grow site is there are also camps. There were people in there for some length of time. And part of the cleanup operation will certainly be dealing with the camps and removing the tents and the sleeping bags, and the other materials that are associated with the camps. That will be probably one of our greatest challenges because of the remoteness of this location.

BLOCK: We read about this in the Oregonian newspaper and I gather there's a real concern about the toxicity of the chemicals that were found, and the environmental hazards. As a biologist, a Fish and Wildlife biologist yourself, you've got to be concerned about all the impacts of what was left behind there.

Mr. GEBHARDT: I mean, if they were using fertilizers on the site, then I need to hear from my specialists, well, what are the true - what are the potential impacts to the stream itself; what are the impacts to the soils. And this team of specialists will provide that in a resource damage assessment report for the forest.

BLOCK: What would you be most worried about from a wildlife perspective?

Mr. GEBHARDT: Well, obviously, like I've mentioned, there's clearing of vegetation. Soils have been disturbed and compacted. The water was diverted to water the marijuana grow sites. There's some evidence of fertilizers and chemicals used on the site.

You also have the potential to introduce exotic weeds, so whenever there is an opportunity for a weed seed to be introduced in these soils that are exposed, that could happen. And that's an important thing for us to document.

BLOCK: Sounds like the kind of thing that must just make your heart sick when you see it, if you're in charge of protecting this forest.

Mr. GEBHARDT: It is disturbing and it's a challenge for myself and for the Forest Services resource managers to look at an area like that and to see the potential damage. And I think the challenge that we are going to have is doing a really good job of evaluating that resource damage and making sure we're doing a good job to restore or to rehabilitate those sites.

BLOCK: Well, Ken Gebhardt, thanks for talking to us about it. And good luck with the cleanup.

Mr. GEBHARDT: Well, thank you very much. And it's a pleasure speaking with you.

BLOCK: Ken Gebhardt is a district ranger for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Oregon.

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