Will Unlicensed Marijuana Cultivation Hurt California’s Redwoods

Photo Credit: Bonnie Jo Mount

A new industry is thriving in California. It is green in terms of the money being made and the crop itself. Yet it is anything but that when it comes to the environment, posing horrendous ecological threats to the region’s redwood forests.

Lindgren Lumber and Humboldt Flakeboard are the newest additions to the Medical Marijuana Innovation Zone, an area in Arcata, California, zoned specifically for marijuana cultivation and processing. As businesses like Humboldt Harvest Wellness and Talking Tree Farms apply for the necessary permits to process cannabis in the former mill complex, it is evident that the cannabis business may restore the economy of redwood country.

But this new industry might also undermine the environmental activism that has long fought to preserve the redwoods as a natural resource.

Not long ago, activists thought they had won this fight. And they had – until now. They successfully dislodged corporate logging, but the old timber mills are being used to churn out marijuana. Marijuana cultivation subjects North Coast forests to a barrage of environmental assaults: soil erosion, heavy pesticide use, stream diversion, irresponsible grading and land clearing, all of which threaten to lay waste to the redwoods.

As marijuana businesses repurpose Arcata’s remaining lumber mills, a renewed ecological peril haunts Humboldt County. Just like timber companies in decades past, marijuana interests are positioning themselves to shape regulations that protect the industry, not the environment. Americans only have to look back a few decades to the activism that saved the redwoods to understand just how high the stakes are.

Precipitating the “timber wars,” that activism began when logging companies expanded operations during the post-World War II housing boom. Timber yields exploded between 1940 and 1970, and increased demand led logging companies to clear-cut large swaths of North Coast redwood forest. This practice had broad ramifications. Leveling a patch of forest compromised entire watersheds by eroding soil and increasing siltation in streams, which left forests vulnerable to flooding, landslides and myriad other environmental problems.

Efforts at redwood preservation proved ineffective when protected groves were surrounded by denuded land. Consequently, environmental advocates intensified their push to create an expansive national park in Northern California that would protect the redwoods from the damage caused by clear-cutting.