The first sign that something is wrong are pieces of clothing: socks, underwear, mangled jeans scattered here and there in the duff on a sunny ridgetop overlooking Elk Creek. The openings made several years ago when the Mendocino Redwood Company last logged have been widened by someone else; young trees cut and left where they fell, holes in the woods that are now bare, sun-blasted dirt.
Black plastic waterlines snake over the ground, a tangle of tarps, a pump-operated plastic cannister with hose attached, used for spreading herbicide.
This is a marijuana trespass, raided by COMMET — County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team — last summer. There are dozens, hundreds like it in the woods of Mendocino County and beyond. It is ugly, sad, dangerous.
The debris of the lives spent here is spread around as well: drifts of empty cans, propane jugs, toothbrushes wedged into the bark of trees. The men who lived here left quickly, probably when COMMET's helicopter made a reconnaissance pass prior to dropping deputies and agents from the sky. Law enforcement cut down more than 4,000 plants here in summer 2013 and hauled them out.
The trash, chemical fertilizers — some bags cut open and stuffed straight into the creek — herbicides and pesticides were left for the property owner to take care of.
Mendocino Redwood Company is one of a few property owners with the resources and mindset to do something about these wastelands. Cost of cleanup including toxic chemicals can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Last Saturday, in order to demonstrate the problem and a kind of solution, MRC took journalists and politicos into the woods to watch the clean-up team the company has tapped do this work.
Takes more than volunteers
Actually, it's more than a cleanup team. The men and one woman from LEAR Asset Protection and Management who were on the job Saturday are security contractors, just like the ones who work in Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones. According to Paul Trouette, spokesman for the LEAR team on Saturday and president of the Mendocino County Blacktail Association, members of his crew do have experience in places like Baghdad and Tora Bora. Their skills encompass combat and interrogation as well as identifying and handling hazardous materials.
It is the latter that LEAR demonstrated Saturday. Suspicious looking powders and liquids, like a commonly found pink substance Trouette's team nicknames Pepto-Bismol, but that is really a neurotoxin called carbofuran used to kill woodrats and the like, are quickly identified. Carbofuran stays poisonous in very small quantities for a long time, and as it soaks into the ground, can harm deer, bear or any other curious creatures who sniff or taste it.
LEAR team members don gloves and seal suspicious bags and bottles in five-gallon buckets. Trouette said later that "extensive" carbofuran contamination was found at the site and members of his team were being tested for exposure.
Trouette said LEAR's military training and gear is necessary for dealing with other risks involved in such work, exemplified by the 2011 murder of Fort Bragg's Jere Melo.
These are some of the reasons, he said, cleanup of trespasses can't safely be done by ordinary workers or volunteers.
Madeleine Melo, head of the Jere Melo Foundation, which also hosted Saturday's trip, said her group tried to do one cleanup as a volunteer effort.
"We decided not to do it anymore," she said Saturday. "It's just too dangerous. It really takes professionals."
Cost an issue
But professionals and special equipment cost a lot of money and aside from what comes out of property owners' pockets, so far there hasn't been much.
That may be changing. Saturday's effort was funded by part of a $78,000 grant from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the first of its kind devoted to cleanup of marijuana trespasses, said Trouette, who sits on DFW's Big Game Advisory Committee.
Currently, asset-forfeiture money divided among local law enforcement agencies does not prioritize picking up trash and hazardous materials. Budgets, like those of the state and federal agencies involved, make enforcement a priority, but not cleanup.
Melo Foundation involved
Jere Melo was murdered by a trespass grower just east of Fort Bragg in 2011, while Melo was on the job patrolling timberland. Madeleine Melo said the foundation she and other local people started after the tragedy has been travelling throughout California speaking to groups like the League of California Cities and California Farm Bureau about the dangers, environmental and otherwise, of marijuana trespass.
Locally, the foundation sponsors events like last weekend's tour, which included a staff member of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, State Assembly hopeful James Wood, and Mendocino County supervisorial candidate Tom Woodhouse.
On Saturday, Aug. 23, the Jere Melo Foundation will hold its annual Walk to Take Back Our Forests through Fort Bragg, starting 1 p.m. at Bainbridge Park, to raise awareness of the ongoing environmental and public safety hazards of marijuana trespass.
Last Saturday, a few hours of work by the LEAR team cleared out 13 helicopter loads, about two-and-a-half tons of debris, but there was still plenty left, including fertilizer and possibly other chemicals still leaching into a tributary of Elk Creek. Even that partial solution was managed with a helicopter and heavily equipped workers. The expense was certainly beyond most individuals and all but the biggest companies.