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Cannabis Crossroads

Habitat protection, not profit, needs to guide pot ordinance


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We are at a crossroads in Humboldt County. We can either build on our rare good fortune of living in a place where wild ecosystems still account for most of the land, or we can continue down the well-worn path of developing and fragmenting the remaining unprotected lands.

The proposed ordinance put forward by California Cannabis Voice Humboldt would not only approve and license thousands of damaging marijuana cultivation sites that exist today, it would also facilitate the expansion of more and larger cultivation sites in valuable habitat. For decades, Humboldt's forested mountains have endured outlaw marijuana grows. It was the privacy provided by the forest that allowed Humboldt's marijuana production to flourish in the first place.

Over the years, the number of grows increased, as did their average size. This increase happened because of economic desires that ignored ecological concerns. The grows that ecologically sensitive people refer to as mega grows, CCVH refers to as "micro farms." They compare the scale of Humboldt's marijuana grows to fields of corn and soybeans. Of course, no one is actually growing fields of row crops on our steep and forested mountains, and no one is clamoring to do so. The point has been made repeatedly that these marijuana grows are located in important wildland habitats, which are being fragmented and degraded by clearing trees and other native vegetation.

Degradation of habitat for an ephemeral market, one that will certainly decline as more states legalize the use and cultivation of marijuana for medical and recreational use, is a very poor decision. Going forward, marijuana production in Humboldt County should be strictly limited in number and size in order to preserve the integrity of our native habitat for its highest ecological values. If growers aren't satisfied with the profits of small-scale grows that fit in with our forest ecosystem, then crops should be grown on real farmland, in places like Ferndale or the Central Valley.

We have much to gain by scaling back marijuana production. While much of the temperate regions of the world have only small swaths of native habitat left, Humboldt County retains a large proportion. Despite the ravages of logging, this land remains a viable and vitally important habitat for many species. Protected areas such as the King Range National Conservation Area and Humboldt Redwoods State Park are fundamentally important.

However, these protected areas are insufficient for maintaining robust populations of Humboldt's largest species. The field of island biogeography has shown that small areas of habitat support fewer species and smaller populations. Smaller populations and reduced diversity means significantly greater vulnerability to extinction. Large animals and top carnivores, especially, need large areas of habitat. Even Yellowstone National Park is not large enough to maintain viable populations of grizzly bears and wolves within its borders. This has serious ramifications for biological diversity, as the presence of top carnivores has been found to encourage and preserve biological diversity in their ecosystems through a process called a trophic cascade.

What this means for Humboldt County is that areas of private land that connect our parks and protected areas, are critically important habitats, their health facilitating robust populations and a diversity of species. The amount of development that takes place on these private lands will greatly affect the overall biological diversity of our region.  

Habitat loss is the biggest cause of extinction. Given that we are in the midst of the largest extinction event since the Cretaceous Extinction, which finished off the dinosaurs, we need to prioritize habitat protection. The number of marijuana grows and the allowable size of grows under CCVH's proposed ordinance would take us in the wrong direction. We should instead choose to protect and enhance ecological integrity and biological diversity as we learn to live sustainably in the forest.

Amy Gustin is host of The Living Earth Connection and co-host of Wildlife Matters on KMUD radio.

She lives in Ettersburg.

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