Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Outdoor marijuana fields growing concern in Santa Cruz County

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Typically when authorities are complaining about marijuana, it’s a legal issue. But in Santa Cruz County, outdoor marijuana grows are causing problems of a more unexpected kind. As reported in the San Jose Mercury News, the marked rise in outdoor weed grows over the last year is raising concerns of environmental degradation and increased potential for wildfires.

For Cal Fire officials, that rise can be measured in the number of new cases of unlawful timber operations. Where 2010 only saw approximately three new cases, last year that number spiked to 22 new incidents.

"They're creating a huge fire hazard in leaving those there," said Cal Fire Division Chief Rich Sampson in the Mercury News of the felled trees left behind. "Often, they're camping there. So the chance of fire is greatly increased."

Sampson emphasized that fire authorities are not concerned about the legality of the crops they uncover, but the safety standards.

"When I get out of the truck, the first thing I say is, 'As far as I'm concerned, this is a vineyard,'" he added, citing that growers are often quick to show him their medical marijuana license. What he is looking for is a timberland conversion permit, which Cal Fire says is required for any such wood-clearing endeavors.

Improper grading of the land, erosion issues and dirt being moved into waterways are also issues of these plots, according to Code Enforcement Investigator Kevin Fitzpatrick. Citing incidents of growers not following codes and getting the proper permits, he also stressed that any legality issues around the marijuana are not his concern.

"Just because of what you're growing, we're not going to deny it,” Fitzpatrick said. “Just do it right."

Grading permits in the area range can from $500 to $3,000, depending on the size of the property.