A California court has sentenced four people for growing cannabis in a national forest. They had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to manufacture, possess and distribute marijuana for sale.
Prosecutors filed those charges for their roles in an illegal cannabis cultivation operation in the Sequoia National Forest.
Alfredo Cardenas- Suastegui admitted in October 2017 to tending 3,850 cannabis plants over a period of four months. He was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay restitution to the U.S. Forest Service for damages.
The court sentenced three co-defendants earlier this month. Sair Maldonado-Soto received a prison term of three years and four months. He also must pay restitution of $10,000 for damage to the forest. His girlfriend Coral Herrera was also convicted in the case. The pair pleaded guilty to providing supplies and equipment to operate the grow site. Abel Toledo-Villa will serve five years in prison for his crimes.
The four defendants had been operating a clandestine growing operation in the Sequoia National Forest in Kern County. The group had two different guerrilla grow sites under cultivation. One was located in the Lucas Creek drainage.
The other grow was in an area known as Box 6. Law enforcement raided the illicit gardens after an investigation that lasted four months.
The group tried to flee in a vehicle when the grow site was raided. Police found a rifle, ammunition and marijuana in the vehicle when it was searched. Altogether, the group was growing more than 10,000 plants.
Police also found environmental damage at both sites. Toxins including fertilizers and pesticides poisoned the land. The growers had also installed miles of plastic irrigation lines to bring water to the plants. A large amount of garbage also littered the site, according to reports.
The dangerous growing operation in Kern County is not an isolated incident. Craig Thompson is a wildlife ecologist working in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with the U.S. Forest Service. He told The Atlantic last year that the issue is widespread in California’s forests.
“It’s a massive problem,” said Thompson. “People don’t tend to grasp the industrial scale of what’s going on. There are thousands of these sites in places the public thinks are pristine, with obscene amounts of chemicals at each one. Each one is a little environmental disaster. I can stand at the intersection of two forest roads and generally know of three or four pot gardens within a quarter or half a mile.”
Thompson studies the Pacific fisher, a rare species of forest-dwelling carnivore in the Sierra’s. When he and colleagues began finding Pacific fishers that showed signs of death by poisoning in 2009, they were puzzled at first.
The animals had been killed by a rodenticide so deadly it could not be purchased legally in the U.S.
After a conservationist told Thompson similar chemicals are often found at grow sites, he decided they were the most likely source of the poison.
The State of California has acknowledged the danger posed by illicit marijuana growing operations on public lands.
Consequently, last year Gov. Jerry Brown earmarked $1.5 million of the state’s budget to clean up environmental damage caused by cultivation operations in Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties.
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