Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Research Update: Cultivating a Potential Ecological, Economic and Social Disaster: The Costs and Challenges of Marijuana on Public Lands

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Research Update: Cultivating a Potential Ecological, Economic and Social Disaster: The Costs and Challenges of Marijuana on Public Lands

Article excerpt

Federally managed lands (i.e., the National Park Service [NPS], United States Forest Service [USFS], Bureau of Land Management [BLM], etc.) serve a variety of purposes, including sustainable use (recreation, timber, etc.) and conservation. A pressing threat to these lands is illegal and rampant marijuana cultivation (Marijuana sativa). Although this issue is not new among the many challenges facing public lands, in 2012 the United States Attorney's Office (USAO) stated that illegal drug production on public lands "pose[s] a safety threat to the public and an environmental threat to the land and to wildlife, [and that] the problem is severe" (USAO 2012). This declaration is partially attributed to the substantial increases in marijuana cultivation on public lands in the last two decades. For example, marijuana plants seized annually on public lands increased from less than one million in 2004 to 2.6 million in 2009. Within a three-year period, 49,105 metric tons of marijuana were confiscated on California's public lands alone (Miller 2012).

As a result of these increases, recent eradication efforts have resulted in more than $1.45 billion in marijuana seizures on public lands across seven western states. During the summer of 2012, approximately 67 percent of all marijuana plants captured in the west occurred on public lands (USAO 2012). However, successful seizures represent as little as 15 percent of estimated production efforts on public lands (National Drug Intelligence Center 2012). These data reveal the enormity of an issue that often under-resourced land-management agencies must constantly confront. Consequently, marijuana cultivation threatens the sustainability of public lands, causing grave ecological, economic and social impacts.

Ecological Impacts

To increase production capacity, marijuana growers often expose sunlight and clear arable land by removing endemic flora that land managers aim to protect. Furthermore, individuals involved in marijuana cultivation often divert streams to irrigate their crops and frequently introduce harmful rodenticides and insecticides indiscriminately. As a result, these toxic products contaminate local watersheds by polluting streams and damaging sensitive riparian habitats (Murphy 2001, National Drug Intelligence Center 2005). Additionally, cultivators reside at grow sites for extended periods of time and irresponsibly dispose of household litter, human waste, irrigation lines and large stores of federally banned fertilizers (USAO 2012).

Economic Impacts

Economically, near-park communities often have high reliance on well-managed public lands (Eagles and McCool 2002), and this reliance can be jeopardized by marijuana cultivation. For example, some visitors or commercial operators may be discouraged from using a specific protected area due to the presence and perceived danger of illegal activity. The economic impacts stretch well beyond near-park communities, as cultivation activities place unforeseen burdens on many agencies' budgets. For example, the National Park Service estimates that for every acre of marijuana cultivation, approximately 10 acres is damaged with an estimated restoration cost of $11,000 per acre (National Drug Intelligence Center 2005). …

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