HUMBOLDT COUNTY (KPIX 5) - Deep in Humboldt County's Six Rivers National Forest, a team of law enforcement agents deploys choppers filled with agents to battle illegal marijuana grows and combat the environmental damage from massive pot farms.
Two-by-two they are dropped in - Tarzan-style - to get on top of the farms as they prepare for harvest.
Our cameras followed on foot with two biologist and armed sheriff's deputies.
The biologists - Mourad Gabriel and Mark Higley – are studying a little-known dark side of the underground pot business: its harmful impact on the environment.
The land is public, but there are no trails and the terrain is rugged and steep. The men who tend the so-called trespass grows also carry guns, and they could be hiding near by. Fortunately for our crew an order to duck and cover turns out to be a false alarm set off by an abandoned camper left over from last year's grow
Farther down the mountain we see signs of more recent activity.
"You want to see their filter system?" Higley asks, holding up what looks like a rubber band-wrapped coffee can attached to a hose.
The growers use a holding pond made out of a tarp that delivers water to the growing field, diverting the precious resource for their own use.
"This is happening hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of times in our national forests," says Higley.
The rigged system we encountered on the side of a steep forest slope was sucking out almost two gallons of water per minute from a stream above. That totals to nearly 2,500 gallons per day.
"My drinking water comes out of the watershed that is fed by this feeder creek here, and it had (highly toxic pesticide) carbofuran in it last year. That makes me angry," Higley says.
It's not just the water grab. At a second grow site we found a pile of chemicals, including boxes of D-CON.
"It's manufactured so that one dose can kill," says Mourad.
Deadly rodenticides like this are banned in California because of the collateral damage they do to the environment and food chain.
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"It is peanut butter flavored," says Morad. "(Which) is liked by game species - so bear, deer. So now you run the risk of individuals consuming game species that have their tissue tainted with rodenticide.
The two scientists have cataloged rodenticides at more than a dozen trespass grows. Their research confirms that the deadly poisons are killing wildlife like the Pacific fisher, a small furry creature native to the woods of the north coast. Spotted and barred owls are also dying.
"I think this is an atrocity on our public lands," says Morad. "It's killing our wildlife. It's killing game species. It is killing species that people have spent millions of dollars to conserve."
Armed with clippers, the eradication team goes to work, cutting the plants down quickly one by one.
In less than an hour, they're done. They have to hurry because the armed men tending the grow are hiding in the forest and could soon be back.
Then the team moves on to the next grow – outnumbered, but undeterred.
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