Fort Bragg Councilman Jere Melo loved the woods. That's why, even after he retired from a career in forestry, he took on contract work patrolling private timberland. He often looked for signs of illegal marijuana grow sites, and he became increasingly concerned about their negative impact on the environment and public safety. Last August 27, he was on such a patrol, but he didn't find a marijuana garden. Instead, a mentally disturbed man who was reportedly tending a field of opium poppies shot and killed him.
After Melo's death, his widow Madeline started the Jere Melo Foundation to educate the public about her late husband's passion: keeping the forests free of illegal marijuana grows. Last Friday, the foundation hosted a tour of one of these grow sites.
The group of twenty people on this tour included woods-workers, journalists, environmental health agents, private security officers and a deputy sheriff. We rode All-Terrain Vehicles up rough logging roads into the dense timberland east of Fort Bragg. My driver, Steve Horner, chairs the Jere Melo Foundation, and works with Campbell Timberland, a company that manages 170,000 acres of private forest land in Mendocino County. The area he took us to was last logged 10 years ago, and the roads were just cut through for this tour. "These marijuana garden locations are usually in remote sites that haven't had any activity of the landowner in sometime." That doesn't mean there wasn't other activity here.
We parked the ATVs for a short hike through redwoods to one former marijuana grow site, which the Mendocino County
Sheriff's Department spotted by helicopter last July, then eradicated. Horner said the timber company came into the area "and quickly recognized that it was a major marijuana grow area." In fact, it was part of a complex of six gardens with over 23,000 plants.
Growers clearly lived here for months. We walked through a camp strewn with batteries and cell phones, sling-shots, and live ammunition. Ken Good, a private security contractor hired by Campbell Timberland to help clean up the site, bagged up personal garbage abandoned here. "It's just a lot of different canned good, Q-tips, trash, plastic bags a lot of things that shouldn't be out in the forest," he said. "It's a lot of days of food, and this is maybe less than 10% overall of this one site. This will be a dump trailer full at least when we get this out. This is just a little tip of the iceberg. " The Sherriff's Department said there are hundreds if not thousands of illegal grows like this each year in Mendocino County.
Garbage from daily living is not the largest concern. Up a steep, muddy hill, Steve Horner pointed to a man-made, 20-foot pond lined with plastic tarps. The growers filled it by diverting water from a natural spring. Small tubes run from the pond, down to the places where plants were gardened. Horner said, "They put pesticides and fertilizer into the water systems, too, to deliver to the plants." This contaminated water ended up in a nearby river. One pesticide found here is so toxic it's illegal in the United States.
Back in town that evening, more than 400 people gathered at the middle school auditorium for a forum called "Take Back Our Forests" hosted by the Jere Melo Foundation. In the crowd was biologist Jennifer Carah, who works for the Nature Conservancy on stream restoration for salmon. "We see materials that are used to divert water from the streams. We see ponds that they use to hold water and mix the fertilizer. We see dead rats and dead raptors that ate poisoned rats," she said. Though many people assert that only legalization will bring an end to trespass grows, Carah said that's beside the point. "Politically we're not there yet, and in the meantime there's a really big short-term issue that impacts not only the personal safety of people who work and play in the woods, but the environment."
Congressman Mike Thompson and other speakers here acknowledged the years of tension around forest use between local loggers and environmental activists. Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said, yes, people disagree about marijuana: its legalization, its medical use, and how it's grown. These illegal gardens on forest land, however, should unite disparate groups, he said. "No matter where you stand on medical marijuana, I think we can come together on this," he said. "This is one area of commonality we have to focus on."
Panelists -- including Tommy LaNier of the National Marijuana Initiative and Chris Kelly of the Conservation Fund -- put forth a range of suggestions, from bolstering law enforcement resources to getting more people on the land, making it less appealing to growers.
When Bruce Hillbach-Barger of the Willits Environmental Center stepped back and acknowledged the losses people suffer from illegal grows in the back-woods, a real hush fell over the audience. "Some of us have lost loved ones, many of
us have lost access to cherished places, and I think a lot of us have lost a sense of fair play and safety," he said. In partnership with the Forest Service, Hillbach-Barger coordinates volunteers out of the Willits Environmental Center to help clean up grow sites. "Redeeming some small part of our losses lets us look more closely at the destruction," he said, "and I hope allows us to look for solutions with a more focused passion."
Across the state, a growing number of community-led groups like The Willits Environmental Center work with agencies to clean-up grow sites. The Northern California Wildlands Reclamation Coalition started clean-ups in Mendocino County last summer, and Hillbach-Barger said he's being mentored by members of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew who've been doing this work in Central California mountains for years.
Jere Melo's widow Madeline hopes her community-led foundation will inspire even more action. When she approached the stage, the crowd gave a standing ovation, and her voice cracked with emotion. She told a story about her husband fighting a forest fire, digging a dirt circle, or scratch line, to contain a fire. "I think Jere was trying to put a
scratch line around the trespass grows," she said. "If this was a forest fire there would be no limit to the effort and resources used to put it out. This isn't a raging forest fire but it is a raging environmental disaster with horrific consequences."
The Jere Melo Foundation plans to compile research, work with law makers on legislation, and hold community workshops and more forums like this in the coming months.