Trekking Humboldt’s Weed Farms With the Guy Who’s Trying to Keep Them Sustainable

Publish date:
Social count:

With weed moving toward legal status, the state and county government are trying to discourage the more irresponsible and destructive methods of cultivation that thrived under prohibition.

By Zach St. George


Environmental consultant Chris Carroll helps cannabis farmers manage pollution and erosion on their properties. With new county and state regulations drawing many farmers out of the black market, Carroll says he’s booked two months out. (Photo: Zach St. George)

Chris Carroll leads the way down a dirt road, trailed by his Australian shepherd and the property owner’s dog, a big white furry thing that is friendly but a little intimidating. The road is skirted on either side by a thick hedge of cannabis plants taller than Carroll, their flowers big as baguettes and glistening in the sun. More plants in pots line the hillside above us. We pass a greenhouse lit orange from within; I can see the silhouettes of rows of smaller plants and a worker moving among them, shapes projected on the wall like shadow puppets. Carroll, wearing hiking boots and an orange vest over a long-sleeve Carhartt shirt, seems unimpressed by all the weed. His head is down, eyes focused on the ground. Past the greenhouse, we follow the path down until it cul-de-sacs into the forest. There is a ditch on the side of the road and then a steep, fern-covered embankment and, at the bottom of that, a tiny trickle of water. This is what he’s interested in: where the dirt will go. “When it rains five inches in one day this will be a river,” he says, pointing at the ditch. “Runoff will come down here and carry sediment straight into that stream.”

Over the last several years, the stories have become well-known even outside Humboldt — how the dope growers have drained the salmon streams and clouded what water is left with sediment and fertilizers, how they’ve strewn the woods with rodenticides, killing vermin but also endangered owls and fishers and pine marten, how they’ve bulldozed holes in the forest until it looks, from above, like a half-done jigsaw puzzle. Like the gold and timber rushes before it, the Green Rush is extractive. The accelerating destruction has alarmed the local, state, and federal agencies tasked with protecting the county’s natural resources, but many long-time growers are worried too. Carroll, the owner of Timberland Resource Consultants, an environmental consulting company, says that, even though many growers are disgusted by the clear excesses of their neighbors, they’re not necessarily sure what is the environmentally friendly way to grow weed. “When you’re operating in the shadows for so long,” he says, “you’re just not sure if what you’re doing is up to code.”

Like the gold and timber rushes before it, the Green Rush is extractive.

I meet Carroll at his company’s headquarters in Fortuna, in north-central Humboldt.* Carroll has a slight surfer’s drawl and a week-old beard. He is a former long-distance biker, now a CrossFitter; on our way south, we stop for breakfast at a diner, where he eats two bagels with cream cheese, one after the other. We drive in his dusty Toyota pick-up to Garberville, then west along sinuous roads leading into the coastal King Range, skirting mostly dry streambeds and twisting through groves of fat redwoods. Carroll went to college at Humboldt State University, in the north part of the county, and started his company in 1998. For most of that time, he worked mainly for timber companies and cattle ranches, both of which must have plans in place to prevent runoff. But along with his usual clients, he says, he occasionally helped out cannabis farmers who wanted to know how to shrink their farm’s environmental footprint. At first it was just friends and acquaintances, he says, but gradually he became known in the community as someone who could be trusted. For him, the task was the same — whether the business was legal or not, he was just concerned with keeping dirt from washing off the hills, he says. “What we do for ranchers and timber companies is really not that different.”

In August 2015, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, which regulates water pollution from agriculture, ranching, and timberlands, issued requirements for marijuana farmers. “We’ve been dealing with it for a while using our enforcement resources,” Adona White, a water resource control engineer in the Water Board’s Santa Rosa offices, says of the runoff and pollution caused by growers. “But enforcement only gets so far.” The new regulations apply to any property in the region containing 2,000 square feet or more of cannabis, requiring the owner to register a plan to prevent runoff across the entire property. Using aerial imagery, the Water Board can scan watershed by watershed, picking out parcels where there seems to be weed growing, but where the owner hasn’t registered. It then sends a letter, giving the owner 35 days to comply (or explain that they aren’t, in fact, growing cannabis) before the fines start — as much as $1,000 per day. “It’s a more efficient tool,” White says. As part of its permitting program, the board set up a system to allow farmers to work through a runoff improvement program with an approved third-party consultant. Carroll’s was the first company the Water Board approved as a third-party consultant; he now visits six farms every week, he says, and he’s booked two months out.

We arrive at our destination, a driveway blocked by a gate. Carroll rolls down his window and punches in a gate code. The gate swings open and we drive through. The air blowing in the windows begins to smell musky. We pass a greenhouse and rows of plants growing along the road, then pull in and park in front of a house with a clay-tile roof and a large attached garage. “That’s a four mile-per-hour speed limit!” Tommy Harwood jokes as he comes out to greet Carroll, trailed by the big white dog (a Great Pyrenees, he later confirms). Harwood has blue eyes and a red beard and freckles. As Carroll steps aside to check a message on his phone, Harwood shows me some of the plants by his house, naming each variety. “This is Super Glue,” he says. “And this one right here is Gelato Forty-One, you heard of that? This is Grape Skunk. Smell it, though — it smells like grape.” (It does.)

Harwood is one of the 1,000-some farmers in the North Coast region who have enrolled so far in the Water Board’s cannabis runoff program. He’s a model client, Carroll says — he keeps his property clean, he isn’t sketchy, and, most of all, he obviously wants to do it right. Harwood points out the straw he’s laid around the base of one potted plant, telling Carroll, “It reduces evaporation by 30 percent.” When Carroll describes the ditch he’s concerned about, down below the greenhouse, Harwood replies, “Well, just tell me what to do.” Compared to some of his past timber clients, Carroll says, many of the growers he works with are eager to get their property into environmental compliance. “Working with these proactive, progressive growers, it’s a feel-good thing,” he says.

But a willingness to improve may not be enough. Some of the environmental problems associated with Humboldt’s cannabis industry are indeed due to the actions of individual growers, says Scott Bauer, an environmental scientist on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s watershed enforcement team. Speaking at a Board of Forestry meeting in Eureka, he clicks through a series of slides, showing animals he says the industry threatens in one way or another — steelhead trout, Coho and Chinook salmon, coastal tailed frog, southern torrent salamander, Pacific fisher, Humboldt marten, spotted owl, Townsend’s big-eared bat. Growers could stop leaving piles of trash and human feces in the woods, he says; they could make sure their generators aren’t leaking, and they could stop putting out rodenticide that winds up killing endangered predators too. But the real problem, he says, is that there are simply too many people growing cannabis.

The crowd of about 100 at the Board of Forestry meeting included local government officials, wildlife managers, CalFire employees, members of the public, and growers. Like several other speakers, Bauer showed a series of aerial photographs of Trinity Pines, an area in the northeastern part of the county. In the first photo, taken in the late 2000s, a few holes are visible in the woods. In the second photo, more holes appear; by the third, taken recently, the scene has flipped like an M.C. Escher tessellation, now as much hole as it is woods. The once-continuous landscape is shattered into hundreds of smaller pieces. “There were fishers in this area,” Bauer says. “Are they still there? Can they survive in that kind of environment? We’re not sure.” Trinity Pines is just a small area, but the scene is repeated across the county, he says.

The threat to the region’s watersheds, similarly, is one of collective effect. The county became the center of California cannabis production in large part because its crumpled landscape proved ideal for hiding out from the cops. But steep, wooded hillsides aren’t easy places to grow any crop, let alone cannabis. To bend the landscape to their purpose, growers cleared trees and bulldozed in new roads and terraces. In the process, they’ve exposed miles of bare soil to the torrential rains that come every winter, Bauer says. Most of the watersheds in the region are “sediment impaired.” The wet winters are matched by dry summers, with months of little or no rain. To irrigate their crop, growers often run pipes directly from streams and springs, draining them at just the time when they’re lowest. In many watersheds, almost no water reaches the ocean for part of the year. As Carroll says, “Our fish have evolved to deal with sediment, but they haven’t evolved to deal without water.”

After leaving Harwood’s farm, Carroll drives to another client’s property. We cross through an orchard, through a locked gate, and down a series of steep switchbacks into a Doug fir and tan oak forest. Even driving at a crawl, the truck kicks up clouds of the powdery silt that Carroll calls “moondust.” Then, suddenly, the color of the road changes, and the moondust disappears. The owner has covered the road with small rocks. Carroll seems pleased. Where a culvert passes under the road, he stops his truck and gets out. On both sides of the culvert, there is an orderly looking ramp of bowling-ball-sized rocks. These will slow the water down and help prevent erosion, Carroll says; he deems the backhoe operator who placed them “an artist.”

We drive a minute farther and park at the end of the road, where the mountainside is folded into a valley. There used to be a small stream running down the center, Carroll says, and it was there that the property owners had decided to plant their cannabis crop. “I said, ‘Guys, you’ve got to get these out of here!’” Carroll says. There was another spot on the property that was totally level, Carroll says, and that would be an ideal spot for growing cannabis. But the valley was hidden in the woods, while the level ground was out in the open. The job is partly about getting clients to make specific changes, he says — things like putting absorbent pads under generators and machinery to prevent oil spills, throwing trash in trash cans, rocking dusty roads, and putting down straw to help prevent erosion. But it’s also about getting them to adjust their thinking to the legal world, where flat ground in the open is preferable to a streambed in the woods.

Though the county would eventually like to see most growers move to lands it has zoned as suitable for agriculture, the Water Board regulations are mostly about getting people into compliance on the land they already occupy. Along with preventing runoff, this means storing enough water during the winter to last through the dry months. The client moved the plants and dammed the bottom of the valley with a 20-foot dike, turning it into a pond that Carroll estimates is capable of storing several hundred thousand gallons. The last step, Carroll says, is an outlet pipe. It’s required, so that in 50 or 100 years, when this is abandoned and nobody is drawing the water down in the summer, it doesn’t overflow, erode, and fail.

On the way back to the main road, we stop once more, in the flat area where his client moved the plants from the streambed. The plants are in orderly rows, like any other farm. He makes a quick loop around the plants, then heads back to his truck, stooping down to pick up a stone the size of an apricot. It will take a mountain’s worth of riprap like this to get Humboldt up to code, he says. “The one thing that’s going to be more valuable than weed,” he says, “is a quarry full of rock.” He drops the stone, and kicks it to the side of the road.

UPDATE—November 1, 1:25 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect the location of Chris Carroll’s company headquarters.