Cartels Abandon National Forest in Mendocino County

The gangsters are gone.

Hikers, campers, and hunters were, for years, warned to stay away from public lands in certain California counties. Because, in addition to spectacular redwoods and hidden creeks, places like the Mendocino National Forest were full of Latino gangsters with machine guns, guarding illicit marijuana crops.

Things got so bad that the federal government sent in an enormous force in 2011 to clear some of this out. “Operation Full Court Press” seized 632,000 marijuana plants from the Mendocino National Forest, which the federal government estimated was worth $800 million (it almost certainly was not, but that's another story).

The raids appear to have worked. Three years later, the national forests are empty of weed growers. At least in Mendocino County, there's “nothing” on public lands this year, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman told a public meeting a few weeks ago, as we reported today.

So what happened? Where'd the “cartels” go? Fresno, apparently.

[jump] It's worthwhile to mention that there is still an awful lot of illegal weed grown on public lands all over the state. According to data provided by the U.S. Forest Service, there were 1.1 million illegal weed plants removed from national forest lands in California last year. That's a big drop from 2010, when 3.1 million plants were eradicated, but far from nothing.

There is also, obviously, a lot of weed being sold on the black market. One place Mendocino growers have gone is from public lands onto private lands. Wildcat growers appear to have swapped timber companies' spreads for national forest lands. This in turn has led some private security companies dressed as soldiers to clear out weed plants. But on the whole, illegal cannabis cultivation appears to be moving out of the Emerald Triangle.

A big reason could be pure convenience. Aside from climate, concealment, and water, there's nothing particularly special about the Emerald Triangle when it comes to growing weed.

All three of these can be found elsewhere in California, without the downsides: It is very difficult to smuggle dirt, fertilizer and food to a remote hilltop in the middle of the woods. And, with helicopters in the air and cops on the ground, it's even harder to do so without being seen. Simply put, trying to grow a profitable pot crop on national forest land is a gigantic pain in the ass.

This could be one reason why illegal marijuana growing appears to have shifted to the Central Valley, where authorities have begun to uncover “football field-sized” grows this year. Altogether, more illegal cannabis gardens were found in Kern, Madera, and Fresno counties than in all of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Lake counties, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

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This makes sense. Land in the valley is cheaper and less mountainous. Roads are more plentiful, and there is already agriculture everywhere. It's easier to hide weed in, say, alfalfa or stone fruits than it is to clearcut a southern-facing exposure in the middle of redwoods and fir trees without attracting attention. And it's much easier to ship truckloads of cannabis to urban black markets in Los Angeles or San Diego from the Fresno area than it is from Fortuna.

Not that illegal growers have abandoned the Emerald Triangle entirely. They're still up in Trinity County, which is debatably the most-remote area of all. In Trinity County, which has no incorporated cities (but does have one of the state's oldest Chinese temples in logging town Weaverville; check it out), agents hauled out 150,622 illegal pot plants, almost twenty times what they cleared out of Humboldt.

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