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Reconstructed food webs from the Ancestral Puebloan southwestern United States show the complexity and interconnectedness of humans, other animals, crops and the environment, in an area of uncertain climate and resources, according to researchers, who think climate change and human decisions then, may shed light on future human choices. "As southwestern archaeologists, we know that Ancestral Puebloan people were intrinsically connected to the environment," said Stefani Crabtree, postdoctoral fellow in human behavioral ecology in the Department of Anthropology, Penn State. "But, most food webs have omitted humans." Traditionally, food webs, while they map the interaction of all the animals and plants in an area, usually do not emphasize the human component. Crabtree and colleagues created a digital food web that captures all categories of consumers and consumed, can be defined for specific time periods and can also represent food webs after major food sources or predators disappear from the area. If an area suddenly becomes devoid of deer or humans or corn, for example, a food web of that situation can show where predators went to find prey, or which prey thrived for lack of a predator. These knockout food webs -- webs missing a specific predator or prey -- show the changes and pressures on the food sources substituted for the missing ones, or the changes that occur when pressure is removed by removing a major consumer. The researchers report the results of their study today (Apr. 10) in the Journal of Archaeological Science. "When people show up in the area around A.D. 600 they bring corn," said Crabtree. "It takes a while for critters to get used to it, but eventually, everything that eats vegetation, eats corn and prefers it." Humans bringing corn into an area is a major disruption of the existing food web. Planting corn means clearing fields to displace whatever plants and animals were there, creating a high-energy plant source of food and switching plant eaters to the preferred higher-calorie food source. In the American Southwest, the Ancestral Puebloan people eventually preyed on their deer population enough so that they deer were no longer a reliable source of food. To compensate for this, they began to domesticate turkeys for food. Turkeys need to be fed corn if they are captive and that competes with corn for human consumption. At this time, corn made up 70 to 80 percent of Ancestral Puebloans' food and so feeding turkeys altered the food web. To create the food web, the team identified all the common, noninvasive species in the area. They then added species that were found in archaeological sites, but were absent from the modern lists. In some food webs, components are identified by their function, so all humming birds are considered flying pollinators, but in this case each type of humming bird received its own place in the web, linked to what it ate and what, if anything, ate it. This produced a very complicated web, but supplied exceptional redundancy. "In the insect world it is harder to get at the data," said Crabtree. "We have not been able to get at good databases so we aggregate at the functional level-- pollinators or bloodsuckers for example." The exception to individual web entries then are invertebrates -- insects, spiders, snails, etc. -- that were classified by their function. Invertebrates are organized to the level of order and then grouped by function. With insects, for example, the researchers would group butterflies and moths that pollinated and sipped nectar, together in one group. The overall food web had 334 nodes representing species or order-level functional groups with 11,344 links between predator and prey. The researchers realize that there are differences in the environment between now and the Ancestral Puebloan period, but many things, such as pinon-juniper woodlands and sage flats are the same. Enough similarity exists for this approach to work. The team did not produce just one overall food web, but also food webs corresponding to three archaeological locations and three time periods of Ancestral Pueblo occupation in the area -- Grass Mesa Pueblo for Pueblo I, Albert Porter Pueblo for Pueblo II and Sand Canyon Pueblo for Pueblo III. They began with using archaeological assemblages from these sites incorporating all human prey and all human predators into the food web. Then they included the prey of the primary prey of humans and then predators of these human-prey species. Prey, in this case, includes animals, insects and plants. When creating knockout food webs, the researchers included only those species that were found in reasonable quantities in the archaeological assemblages at those times. "Knockout food webs are one of the best ways to understand how people interact with the environment," said Crabtree. "Because we can remove something, predator or prey, and see what would happen." When major changes in climate variables such as drought, heat and lack of snowpack are factored in, the balance in the food web may become unstable. When food becomes scarce, most mobile creatures, animals and insects move to another location. During the time of the Ancestral Puebloans, this was possible and eventually, these people moved to the area of the Rio Grande in New Mexico and other places in New Mexico and Arizona. "We didn't have a long-term plan during the 600 years of Ancestral Pueblo habitation in the Mesa Verde region," said Crabtree. "We don't have a long-term plan today either. We don't even have a four-year plan. Some people are pushing us to look closely at climate change." In the past, people migrated, said Crabtree. Unless we figure out better strategies, where are we going to migrate out to? We do not have a place to go, she said. What people plant and eat has a great effect on the environment and on ecosystems. In the end, those choices will impact human survival, according to the researchers. This work is part of a collaboration of researchers creating resolved food webs from a variety of places. Crabtree believes that she can compare this project to others that include humans in other geographical areas to help understand ecosystems with humans in them. Also working on this project were Lydia J.S. Vaughn, graduate student, energy and resources group, University of California, Berkeley; and Nathan T. Crabtree, U.S. Forest Services. The National Science Foundation and the Chateaubriand Fellowship funded this research.

Yuan W.,Beijing Normal University | Yuan W.,CAS Lanzhou Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute | Cai W.,Beijing Normal University | Xia J.,Beijing Normal University | And 28 more authors.
Agricultural and Forest Meteorology | Year: 2014

Simulating gross primary productivity (GPP) of terrestrial ecosystems has been a major challenge in quantifying the global carbon cycle. Many different light use efficiency (LUE) models have been developed recently, but our understanding of the relative merits of different models remains limited. Using CO2 flux measurements from multiple eddy covariance sites, we here compared and assessed major algorithms and performance of seven LUE models (CASA, CFix, CFlux, EC-LUE, MODIS, VPM and VPRM). Comparison between simulated GPP and estimated GPP from flux measurements showed that model performance differed substantially among ecosystem types. In general, most models performed better in capturing the temporal changes and magnitude of GPP in deciduous broadleaf forests and mixed forests than in evergreen broadleaf forests and shrublands. Six of the seven LUE models significantly underestimated GPP during cloudy days because the impacts of diffuse radiation on light use efficiency were ignored in the models. CFlux and EC-LUE exhibited the lowest root mean square error among all models at 80% and 75% of the sites, respectively. Moreover, these two models showed better performance than others in simulating interannual variability of GPP. Two pairwise comparisons revealed that the seven models differed substantially in algorithms describing the environmental regulations, particularly water stress, on GPP. This analysis highlights the need to improve representation of the impacts of diffuse radiation and water stress in the LUE models. © 2014 Elsevier B.V.

Kuppel S.,CEA Saclay Nuclear Research Center | Kuppel S.,National University of San Luis | Peylin P.,CEA Saclay Nuclear Research Center | Maignan F.,CEA Saclay Nuclear Research Center | And 4 more authors.
Geoscientific Model Development | Year: 2014

This study uses a variational data assimilation framework to simultaneously constrain a global ecosystem model with eddy covariance measurements of daily net ecosystem exchange (NEE) and latent heat (LE) fluxes from a large number of sites grouped in seven plant functional types (PFTs). It is an attempt to bridge the gap between the numerous site-specific parameter optimization works found in the literature and the generic parameterization used by most land surface models within each PFT. The present multisite approach allows deriving PFT-generic sets of optimized parameters enhancing the agreement between measured and simulated fluxes at most of the sites considered, with performances often comparable to those of the corresponding site-specific optimizations. Besides reducing the PFTaveraged model-data root-mean-square difference (RMSD) and the associated daily output uncertainty, the optimization improves the simulated CO2 balance at tropical and temperate forests sites. The major site-level NEE adjustments at the seasonal scale are reduced amplitude in C3 grasslands and boreal forests, increased seasonality in temperate evergreen forests, and better model-data phasing in temperate deciduous broadleaf forests. Conversely, the poorer performances in tropical evergreen broadleaf forests points to deficiencies regarding the modelling of phenology and soil water stress for this PFT. An evaluation with data-oriented estimates of photosynthesis (GPP - gross primary productivity) and ecosystem respiration (Reco) rates indicates distinctively improved simulations of both gross fluxes. The multisite parameter sets are then tested against CO2 concentrations measured at 53 locations around the globe, showing significant adjustments of the modelled seasonality of atmospheric CO2 concentration, whose relevance seems PFT-dependent, along with an improved interannual variability. Lastly, a globalscale evaluation with remote sensing NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) measurements indicates an improvement of the simulated seasonal variations of the foliar cover for all considered PFTs. © Author(s) 2014.

Parazoo N.C.,Jet Propulsion Laboratory | Parazoo N.C.,University of California at Los Angeles | Bowman K.,Jet Propulsion Laboratory | Bowman K.,University of California at Los Angeles | And 9 more authors.
Global Change Biology | Year: 2014

Determining the spatial and temporal distribution of terrestrial gross primary production (GPP) is a critical step in closing the Earth's carbon budget. Dynamical global vegetation models (DGVMs) provide mechanistic insight into GPP variability but diverge in predicting the response to climate in poorly investigated regions. Recent advances in the remote sensing of solar-induced chlorophyll fluorescence (SIF) opens up a new possibility to provide direct global observational constraints for GPP. Here, we apply an optimal estimation approach to infer the global distribution of GPP from an ensemble of eight DGVMs constrained by global measurements of SIF from the Greenhouse Gases Observing SATellite (GOSAT). These estimates are compared to flux tower data in N. America, Europe, and tropical S. America, with careful consideration of scale differences between models, GOSAT, and flux towers. Assimilation of GOSAT SIF with DGVMs causes a redistribution of global productivity from northern latitudes to the tropics of 7-8 Pg C yr-1 from 2010 to 2012, with reduced GPP in northern forests (~3.6 Pg C yr-1) and enhanced GPP in tropical forests (~3.7 Pg C yr-1). This leads to improvements in the structure of the seasonal cycle, including earlier dry season GPP loss and enhanced peak-to-trough GPP in tropical forests within the Amazon Basin and reduced growing season length in northern croplands and deciduous forests. Uncertainty in predicted GPP (estimated from the spread of DGVMs) is reduced by 40-70% during peak productivity suggesting the assimilation of GOSAT SIF with models is well-suited for benchmarking. We conclude that satellite fluorescence augurs a new opportunity to quantify the GPP response to climate drivers and the potential to constrain predictions of carbon cycle evolution. © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

News Article | December 13, 2016

US Forest Service Completeness Determination Allows Project to Proceed into the NEPA Process VANCOUVER, BC--(Marketwired - December 13, 2016) - Midas Gold Corp. (TSX: MAX) ( : MDRPF) today announced that the United States Forest Service ("US Forest Service") has determined that the Plan of Restoration and Operations ("PRO") filed by Midas Gold Idaho, Inc. on September 21, 2016 for the restoration, re-development and operation of the Stibnite Gold Project ("Project") in Valley County, Idaho has met the requirements for a plan of operations under US Forest Service regulations. With this determination, the US Forest Service has confirmed that Midas Gold provided sufficient information in the PRO to commence the formal review of the Stibnite Gold Project under the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"). "Midas Gold is pleased that the US Forest Service has deemed our Plan of Restoration and Operations complete," said Stephen Quin, President & CEO of Midas Gold Corp. "The US Forest Service determination allows us to formally enter the NEPA process. Federal and State agencies can now begin consideration of Midas Gold's plan for the repair and restoration of legacy impacts of over 100 years of past mining activity while re-developing the site as a modern mining operation. Our plan was designed from the outset with closure in mind, to be protective of the environment, and to provide significant employment and economic benefits to the local and regional economy." The US Forest Service will now commence the review process as required by NEPA. It is expected that the State of Idaho will request that such a review be conducted in a joint review process that allows coordination of Federal, State and other agencies and regulatory bodies for a more efficient, timely and effective review. "We look forward to working with the Federal and State regulators, Tribal governments, Valley County, and our local communities to ensure that there is a thorough and comprehensive review process for the Stibnite Gold Project," said Laurel Sayer, President & CEO of Midas Gold Idaho, Inc. "We believe that the Midas Gold team has presented an outstanding plan for the future of the Stibnite Gold Project site that has been developed with input from many interested parties. Our plan is different because we started with the idea that mining and the environment can work hand in hand. We know we can take an area mined for 100 years and use the mineral resources there today to fund the restoration that the local environment desperately needs, while providing jobs and economic benefits. We can and will restore the site to a productive and self-sustaining ecosystem through the implementation of our plan. A key part of this restoration plan is to bring back salmon to the headwaters of the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River for the first time since the 1930s," she said. "We look forward to working closely and collaboratively with the various governments, communities and interested parties to ensure the Project design is robust, economically beneficial, and protective of the natural environment." With the completeness determination, the US Forest Service will now work with Midas Gold to prepare a strong, clear and responsible "proposed action", based on the PRO, for consideration under NEPA. On finalizing the proposed action, the US Forest Service will seek input in a public comment period to determine the scope of the Project. Once the scoping process is complete, the US Forest Service will work towards preparing an Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS") for review and filed with the Council on Environmental Quality. "The team at Midas Gold is committed to continue being open and transparent as we move through the public review of our plan for restoration of the Stibnite Gold Project Site," said Ms. Sayer. "We will continue to seek and welcome public input. Please visit our website where you can give us your feedback and sign up for a tour of the site in the coming summer. You can review the PRO, and a presentation summarizing key PRO aspects, which will be available on our website in January 2017." Midas Gold anticipates that Federal agencies, led by the US Forest Service, and Idaho state agencies (led by the Idaho Department of Lands), will soon enter into a Memorandum of Understanding that will provide clarity on timelines and agency responsibilities with respect to conducting a review of the PRO under NEPA. The process contemplated has been termed the "Idaho Joint Review Process" and is expected to provide for an efficient and timely review by the Federal and State agencies. Details of previous news releases and technical studies can be found filed under Midas Gold's profile on SEDAR ( or at About Midas Gold and the Stibnite Gold Project Midas Gold Corp., through its wholly owned subsidiaries are focused on the exploration and, if warranted, site restoration and development of gold-antimony-silver deposits in the Stibnite-Yellow Pine district of central Idaho that are encompassed by its Stibnite Gold Project. Statements contained in this news release that are not historical facts are "forward-looking information" or "forward-looking statements" (collectively, "Forward-Looking Information") within the meaning of applicable Canadian securities legislation and the United States Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Forward Looking Information includes, but is not limited to, disclosure regarding possible events, next steps and courses of action including actions to be taken by the US Forest Service, the State of Idaho and other government agencies and regulatory bodies. In certain cases, Forward-Looking Information can be identified by the use of words and phrases such as "plans", "expects" or "does not expect", "is expected", "estimates", "forecasts", "intends", "anticipates", "potential", "confirm" or "does not anticipate", "believes", "contemplates", "recommends" or variations of such words and phrases or statements that certain actions, events or results "may", "could", "would", "might" "be achieved". In preparing the Forward-Looking Information in this news release, Midas Gold has applied several material assumptions, including, but not limited to, assumptions that the current objectives concerning the Stibnite Gold Project can be achieved and that its other corporate activities will proceed as expected; that general business and economic conditions will not change in a materially adverse manner; that the formal review process under the NEPA (including a joint review process involving the US Forest Services, the State of Idaho and other agencies and regulatory bodies) as well as the public comment period, scoping process and EIS will proceed in a timely manner and as expected; that all requisite information will be available in a timely manner such that the PRO and highlights presentation summarizing key PRO aspects may be posted to Midas Gold's website by January 2017; and that a Memorandum of Understanding will be entered into among US Forest Service and Idaho state agencies and that the timing and content of such Memorandum of Understanding is consistent with Midas Gold's expectations. Forward-Looking Information involves known and unknown risks, uncertainties and other factors which may cause the actual results, performance or achievements of Midas Gold to be materially different from any future results, performance or achievements expressed or implied by the Forward-Looking Information. Such risks and other factors include, among others, changes in laws and regulations and changes in the application of standards pursuant to existing laws and regulations which may result in unforeseen results in the review process under the NEPA; uncertainty surrounding input to be received pursuant to the scoping process including but not limited to the public comment period; risks related to dependence on key personnel; risks related to unforeseen delays in the review process including availability of personnel from the US Forest Services, State of Idaho and other agencies and regulatory bodies; as well as those factors discussed in Midas Gold's public disclosure record. Although Midas Gold has attempted to identify important factors that could affect Midas Gold and may cause actual actions, events or results to differ materially from those described in Forward-Looking Information, there may be other factors that cause actions, events or results not to be as anticipated, estimated or intended. There can be no assurance that Forward-Looking Information will prove to be accurate, as actual results and future events could differ materially from those anticipated in such statements. Accordingly, readers should not place undue reliance on Forward-Looking Information. Except as required by law, Midas Gold does not assume any obligation to release publicly any revisions to Forward-Looking Information contained in this news release to reflect events or circumstances after the date hereof or to reflect the occurrence of unanticipated events.

News Article | September 6, 2016

LAIKIPIA, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Deep within the Mukogodo forest in central Kenya, a community of traditional hunter gatherers are working with the government to help expand forests and crack down on illegal logging and poaching using ancient conservation techniques. The Yiaaku are hailed a model of collaboration with authorities, using traditional knowledge to take care of tree and plant cover while adopting new livelihoods such as keeping bees and livestock to protect animals from hunting. Kenya Forest Services Director, Emilio Mugo, said legislation to allow co-management of forests was introduced nearly a decade ago but the Yiaaku is the first successful community to do so, with hopes this approach can be replicated across Kenya. "Where this community model is practiced we have seen cases of illegal logging reduce up to 50 percent," Mugo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Since we integrated the community's indigenous knowledge model of conserving forests into our forest policy .. there has been little friction or tensions with these forest dwellers." The Kenya Forest Management Act of 2007 aimed to integrate communities into forest management but also led to the abolition of long-standing traditions such as hunting and logging for charcoal to maintain the forests and promote tourism. It came ahead of Kenya setting a target to increase its forest cover to about 10 percent by 2030 from an estimated 7.2 percent, according to the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). OLD VERSUS THE NEW Yiaaku leaders say their approach to protecting the forest from illegal loggers and trophy hunters has not only helped defuse conflict with neighboring communities but eased past tensions with government authorities who want to ensure forests and animals are protected to encourage tourism. He said the community's knowledge of the forest meant they knew which trees had medicinal value and need conservation, could foresee dry spells so water points could be conserved and used observation of wildlife - such as bird migration patterns - to warn of drought or dangerous weather events. He said the Yiaaku, living northeast of Nairobi, also acted as fire fighters during the hot season and monitored the health of seedlings and old trees. "We don't have to fight with the authorities anymore as they have acknowledged our system as a powerful tool in protection and conservation of the forest biodiversity," Simon Napei, a Yiaaku forest scout, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Every activity in the forest is decided by a council of elders. During drought seasons a council of elders sits and decides where and when the livestock should be grazed in the forest." Children are trained and taught by their elders to understand the value of individual trees for the overall health of the forest, he said, and every individual will plant more than 20 trees during each rainy season "The community has strong cultural beliefs and taboos which are viewed as sacred," he said. "These taboos are a set of rules and regulations used to bring sanity [order] within the community and anyone who breaks the rules brings a curse to the family." Mugo said the Yiaaku are now custodians of more than 74,000 acres (29,950 hectares) of forest land and their success has also earned them security and autonomy. He said the government had saved "millions of Kenyan shillings" previously spent on armed personnel to guard forests and reforesting programs, and the government now hopes to replicate this approach in 100 other gazetted forests. "We are targeting communities that are well organized and have a common purpose of conserving forests," he said.

Chevallier F.,CEA Saclay Nuclear Research Center | Wang T.,CEA Saclay Nuclear Research Center | Ciais P.,CEA Saclay Nuclear Research Center | Maignan F.,CEA Saclay Nuclear Research Center | And 12 more authors.
Global Biogeochemical Cycles | Year: 2012

To guide the future development of CO2-atmospheric inversion modeling systems, we analyzed the errors arising from prior information about terrestrial ecosystem fluxes. We compared the surface fluxes calculated by a process-based terrestrial ecosystem model with daily averages of CO2 flux measurements at 156 sites across the world in the FLUXNET network. At the daily scale, the standard deviation of the model-data fit was 2.5 gCm -2d-1; temporal autocorrelations were significant at the weekly scale (>0.3 for lags less than four weeks), while spatial correlations were confined to within the first few hundred kilometers (<0.2 after 200km). Separating out the plant functional types did not increase the spatial correlations, except for the deciduous broad-leaved forests. Using the statistics of the flux measurements as a proxy for the statistics of the prior flux errors was shown not to be a viable approach. A statistical model allowed us to upscale the site-level flux error statistics to the coarser spatial and temporal resolutions used in regional or global models. This approach allowed us to quantify how aggregation reduces error variances, while increasing correlations. As an example, for a typical inversion of grid point (300km × 300km) monthly fluxes, we found that the prior flux error follows an approximate e-folding correlation length of 500km only, with correlations from one month to the next as large as 0.6. © 2012 by the American Geophysical Union.

Montagnani L.,Forest Services | Montagnani L.,Agency for the Environment | Montagnani L.,Free University of Bozen Bolzano | Manca G.,European Commission - Joint Research Center Ispra | And 2 more authors.
Agricultural and Forest Meteorology | Year: 2010

The new method for CO2 advective flux computation, based on the air mass-conservation principle, MCA (Montagnani et al., 2009) is applied to datasets collected at the three forest sites of Renon, Wetzstein and Norunda during the ADVEX campaign. Values of advective flux, calculated for 1 month at each site, are compared to those obtained using the more common method which computes the advective fluxes along vertical and horizontal CO2 gradients, GA (Feigenwinter et al., 2008). According to both methods, night-time CO2 advection values were found to be positive at the sloping sites of Renon (MCA, 8.88 μmol m-2 s-1, GA, 14.30 μmol m-2 s-1) and Wetzstein (MCA, 2.82 μmol m-2 s-1, GA, 3.07 μmol m-2 s-1) and negative at the flat site of Norunda (MCA, -3.00 μmol m-2 s-1, GA, -8.12, μmol m-2 s-1), where the occurrence of extremely high negative advection values was calculated at night according to both methods. Daytime advection was found to be generally small and negative at all sites following both methods, while standard deviations were found to be generally higher according to the GA method. Half-hourly calculated values were found to be similar during some periods, while in others, characterized by specific wind conditions, substantial differences were present. The coefficient of correlation (r2) between the two estimates was 0.15 for Renon, 0.55 for Wetzstein and 0.45 for Norunda. Three methodological aspects were considered to identify the reasons for the observed differences in CO2 advections estimates: the correction factor used to attain mass conservation, the air incompressibility assumption and the vertical interpolation of wind velocities were found all to be scarcely correlated to observed differences. These results indicate that general information concerning sign and daily courses of CO2 advection estimates can already be taken from direct measurements, but there are still unresolved theoretical and computational issues affecting their quantitative reliability. © 2010 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Bagnara M.,Research and Innovation Center | Bagnara M.,University of Bologna | Sottocornola M.,Research and Innovation Center | Sottocornola M.,Waterford Institute of Technology | And 6 more authors.
Ecological Modelling | Year: 2015

In this study we applied a modified version of Prelued, a simple semi-empirical light use efficiency (LUE) model, to eight eddy-covariance Italian sites. Since this model has been successfully applied mainly to coniferous forests located at northern latitudes, in our study we aimed to test its generality, by comparing Prelued's outputs in coniferous, broadleaf forests and in a Mediterranean macchia, at different climatic and environmental conditions. The model was calibrated for daily gross primary production (GPP) observed over one year in each flux site and validated for another year. The model uncertainties on both GPP and model parameters were estimated, applying a Bayesian calibration based on a multiple chains Markov Chain Monte Carlo sampling.The accuracy of the model estimates of daily GPP over the entire period of simulation differed widely depending on the site considered, with generally good model performance when applied to evergreen and broadleaf forests and poor performances in the Mediterranean macchia. The values of the modifiers accounting for the response to climatic variables suggested the soil water content to be non-limiting in temperate mountain evergreen but limiting in Mediterranean forests. Model uncertainties were always smaller than data uncertainties, with variable magnitude depending on the site considered. Both modeled GPP and uncertainties were largely dependent also on uncertainties on the data, which made their calculation a key process in this modelling exercise.In conclusion, this semi-empirical model appears to be suitable for estimating daily and annual forest GPP in most of the considered sites, with the exception of Mediterranean macchias, and for supporting its application to a large range of ecosystems provided a site-specific calibration. The Bayesian calibration did not confer a clear advantage in terms of model performances in respect to other methods used in previous studies, but allowed us to estimate uncertainties on both parameter values and model estimates, which were useful to analyse more in detail the ecosystem response to environmental drivers of GPP. © 2014 Elsevier B.V..

News Article | November 6, 2016

This is part of United States of Weed, a Motherboard series that demystifies all the cannabis legislation for Election 2016. Follow along here. The decomposing corpses are strewn among 7,000 pounds of propane tanks, tarps, car batteries, fertilizers, pesticides, banned rodenticides from Mexico, and other trash, plus 4,000 pounds of irrigation line blanketing an abandoned 20,000 plant illegal marijuana grow site in northeastern California's Lassen National Forest. What was once unspoiled landscape is now a pockmarked 12-acre slagheap reminiscent of no man's land. It's one example of thousands of similarly destructive illegal cannabis grows occurring each year on California's public lands, according to Mourad Gabriel, Executive Director and Senior Ecologist at the Integral Ecology Research Center. Mourad has organized cleanup efforts at this and other illicit marijuana operations in the more remote areas of northern California. When Mourad first started doing this work it was overwhelming for him to see such blatant disregard for the environment. But having now participated in hundreds of cleanups, he's almost inured to the destruction. The day I spoke with Mourad he was joined by a few first-time volunteers. Upon arriving at the former grow site, he said the volunteers stared in awe for minutes, dumbstruck and unable to fathom the damage and waste in front of them. "You can't even believe that there are folks turning this beautiful pristine area into their trash bin, and it's all for pure greed," Mourad told me. "This is strictly for money, to make as much profit as possible and at the expense of the public good." "Proposition 215 came in 1995-1996," he added, referring to California's Compassionate Use Act, a landmark piece of legislation that allows patients with a doctor's recommendation to possess and grow cannabis for medical use. "Look at California now. You're talking two decades and it's just prolifically getting worse. Can our environment really sustain what's been going on for another ten years?" "You can't even believe that there are folks turning this beautiful pristine area into their trash bin, and it's all for pure greed." Besides spearheading such large-scale cleanups, Gabriel is also a first-class ecologist. In one of his more prominent and ongoing investigations he has been tracking long-term toxicant levels in Pacific fishers, a threatened species of forest carnivore, and the spotted owl, a federally-listed species, resulting from the chemicals used on illegal marijuana grows. The initial results of the investigation are disheartening. The common assumption is that legalizing recreational marijuana in California would discourage this sort of large-scale illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands, and, as consequence, the resulting environmental damage responsible for poisoning wildlife, among other things. A 'yes' vote on Proposition 64, a proposed state law on which Californians will vote this November 8, would permit the possession and use of marijuana for recreational purposes for adults aged 21 or older. Proposition 64 would also require suppliers to acquire a state license. The bill is expected to pass. Statewide recreational marijuana legalization, the argument goes, is a panacea to the environmental harm of large-scale illegal cannabis grows in California. But the reality is not so straightforward. The damage at the Lassen site may seem extreme. But the poisoning and death of animals, including fishers, martens, spotted and barred owls, bobcats, mountain lions, gray foxes, black bears, deer, quail, rodents, and rabbits; as well as the residual trash resulting from illegal cannabis cultivation, represents only a scintilla of the total damage wrought by these operations. Deforestation, wildfires, and erosion from terracing and the slapdash construction of roads are some of the more visible effects of illegal marijuana grows, according to Karen Escobar, an Assistant US Attorney in California's Eastern District. Diverting and tapping water from streams and springs, exhausting underground aquifers, and overloading watersheds with pesticides, rodenticides, and fertilizers are other ways that illegal grows decimate the environment. One recent study showed illegal marijuana cultivation to be the biggest threat to the survival of federally-listed salmon and trout. Escobar has spent years prosecuting these operations. The practices being used today at big illegal grows were once considered extreme, according to Escobar. But not anymore. "The extreme is now the normal," she said. Read more: California Will Vote on Legalizing Marijuana With Proposition 64 A total of 1,893 illegal outdoor grow sites in California were eliminated in 2015, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Almost half of these were on public lands. With cleanup and rehabilitation efforts ranging between $10,000 and $100,000 per site, the cost of this damage is substantial. And given the remoteness and ruggedness of California's terrain, many grows simply go undetected. California alone produces 70 percent of the US's total output of both legal and illegal cannabis. It is estimated that this comes out to around 49,106 metric tons per year. The state's climate and geography combine to create the consummate weed-growing conditions. At the same time, the US opioid epidemic has resulted in the DEA de-emphasizing marijuana operations, according to DEA spokesperson Russell Baer. This has further strained the influence of already underfunded local law agencies. And the superabundance of California wildfires only saps enforcement efforts by diverting National Forest Service personnel away from fighting illegal grows. These two factors have created a law-enforcement vacuum in remote areas like Lassen National Forest, with low-risk, high-reward conditions so conducive to criminality. Add to this medley a large and insatiable pot-smoking population and skyrocketing land prices that push many legitimate growers onto "free" public land, as well as relaxed laws around cannabis cultivation, and it's unsurprising that California has become America's cradle for weed production. In 2015, California accounted for 65 percent of all illegal grows on national forest land across the US, according to the National Forest Service. Domestic drug trafficking organizations manage many of these grows, sending their product to other states where it is still illegal and, ex officio, where profit margins are higher. But a lot of this marijuana also stays in California. "11:3:58, which is cultivating marijuana, we call it farming for shorthand," said David Frost, a District Attorney for Monterey County. "The penalty for that is a maximum of three years here in California. It could be sixteen months, two years, or three years." If guns are involved and it's a federal case, sentences can increase, Frost added. But otherwise, two to three years in a state penitentiary is a pretty small price to pay for a mega-operation with a considerable ecological footprint. And this is assuming there is anyone around when authorities show up. Having been out in the backcountry for five months or more, the workers tending these farms have perfected their escape routes, according to Mark Sievers, a sergeant at the Monterey County Sheriff's Department, who worked on the "weed team" for many years. "They hear us long before we get to the garden and so they're gone," Sievers said. "We don't get that many in custody." Not surprisingly, California leads the way in drug trafficking activity. Sixty-one percent of drug trafficking organizations operating on National Forest Service land in the US are in California, according to Forest Service data. "Most of it is handled locally," said Chris Boehm, the acting director of law enforcement and investigations for the National Forest Service. "The infrastructure, the supply structure, the transport and distribution structure. The product is much easier to produce and in many cases sell [than cocaine]. It lends itself to a whole variety of groups and organizations." Read more: California to Vote on Wiping Old Weed Arrests The individuals tending these grows often come from economically vulnerable rungs of society, making them more susceptible to recruitment. "A lot of them are field workers and are in pretty dire straits. They want to work and make some money," said Charles Lee, a Fresno-based assistant federal defender. "They are told they are going to work on a ranch somewhere remote. They don't even know it's a marijuana grow until they get there and the next they know they're in the middle of nowhere. They don't know the terrain. They don't know the area. They're dropped off and they don't know how to get back to civilization." Others are forcibly recruited. Bill Abramson, a contract public defender for Plumas County, has heard of cases in which these organizations impel individuals to work by threatening harm against their families. Many workers aren't even told who they're working for. Information is tightly compartmentalized in order to protect higher ups in the organizations, something that has hamstrung efforts to make any major, penetrating prosecutions. But irrespective of who is actually running the drug trafficking organizations behind industrial-sized illegal outdoor marijuana grows, they are all bound by the same organizational precept: maximize profits at whatever the cost. That cost has been California's public lands. "The biggest issue we're facing right now," said Boehm, "are the types of hazardous chemicals that they're bringing in. They're being applied at levels of concentration that are extremely dangerous to the land. Some of these chemicals in certain concentrations will kill you. We've had to adjust our operations to make sure we're not exposing our people to this stuff." "Some of these chemicals in certain concentrations will kill you. We've had to adjust our operations to make sure we're not exposing our people to this stuff." Most of these substances are currently banned in the US. They are brought here, in large part, from Mexico. Their effectiveness in maximizing marijuana plant yields is undeniable, but so too is their effectiveness in poisoning the environment. It's unclear if field hands who apply these chemicals are aware of the long-term ramifications of their work, according to Lee. But focusing on lowly workers would be missing the point, as illegal grows and drug trafficking organizations exist in the first place because there is a black market for illegal marijuana. The same incentives drove organized crime groups during Prohibition in the 1920s and 30s. Those operations were put out of business only after passage of the 21st Amendment, which effectively legalized alcohol consumption across the US. It's unlikely that statewide legalization of recreational marijuana in California would have the same effect. In fact, the very opposite may be true. Mourad's recent findings on Pacific fishers revealed some interesting details about the prevalence of illegal marijuana farms in Oregon. By tracking the overall toxicant levels in fisher carcasses submitted for necropsy over several years, Mourad was able to see if legalizing recreational marijuana in Oregon changed these levels. He was, in essence, able to see if illegal grows decreased post-legalization. It still might be too early for any kind of resounding conclusions in Oregon, which only legalized recreational marijuana last year. According to Mourad, the toxicant levels found in Pacific fishers in Oregon over the long-term hasn't gone down. "What we're finding right now is that it's either increased or stayed at a very elevated level," he said. However, Mourad's preliminary findings, which will likely be published early next year, challenge the notion that statewide recreational legalization might eliminate illegal weed grows and, by extension, wide-scale environmental damage occurring on public lands in Oregon and beyond. Experts and officials in Colorado and Washington, on the other hand, have had more time to analyze the effects of legalizing recreational marijuana since both states passed legalization laws in 2012. Yet that hasn't reduced illegal grows on public land in either of those states, or at least "not at this time," according to Boehm. "It's all about supply and demand," Boehm said. "There's always a black market for things. I think it's always going to be there unless you can make it completely unprofitable to grow." Watch Motherboard's 2013 doc on US cannabis legalization and the Silicon Valley of Weed. After recreational cannabis legalization in Colorado kicked in, many individuals and organizations moved to that state to grow weed under less stringent laws. Indeed, most of the legal weed grown in-state does stay in Colorado. Something similar can also be said for the illegal bud grown in-state, according to Boehm: Many of the big illegal grows run by drug trafficking organizations do move some of their unregulated, pesticide-laden product out of state rather of selling to Colorado dispensaries. But a lot of it stays in Colorado, where it trickles into the above-board supply. "Colorado and Washington State have legitimated the market but not the production," said Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez, a research professor at the National Security Affairs Department of the Naval Postgraduate School. "The law didn't have enough prohibitions for the production of it. It is still very foggy about where it comes from." This is a critical lesson for California, one that hasn't gone unnoticed by people like Boehm. "If the market increases—and I am sure it will, if it's legalized—there'll probably be more people using, which will require more marijuana," Boehm said. "Until the legal capacity gets to where it needs to be, we'll see an increase [of illegal grows] on public lands. I feel pretty confident saying that. Historically that's what's happened, so why would it be any different?" Unless some form of rigorous and uniform statewide regulation is tucked into whatever legislation accompanies recreational legalization in California—something that has proven difficult in states like Oregon, Colorado, and Washington—neither the amount of illegal grows nor the accompanying environmental damage will abate. And when public lands in California offer a cheaper alternative than private land and come with the benefit of minimal visibility, organizations looking to fly under the radar will likely continue to fill this initial supply shortfall, not to mention the invariable shortfall in states where marijuana is still illegal. This has been the trend in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado since legalization. Unless some form of rigorous and uniform statewide regulation is tucked into whatever legislation accompanies legalization in California neither the amount of illegal grows nor the accompanying environmental damage will abate. In other words, warding off illegal grows on public land may seem like a Sisyphean task. But interdiction innovations are in the air. "I would like to see a very radical interdiction system established to preserve our national parks and forests from illegal grows," Rodrigo said. By "radical interdiction" Rodrigo means small-fry surveillance drones. He believes there are ways to implement a responsible and transparent program to root out illegal grows using unmanned aerial vehicles. It would have to be a joint effort between civil society organizations and the government, he added, a kind of bottom-up approach to policing our public lands that would require the collaboration of institutions like the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as the National Park and Forest Services. Ruling out such hands-on, preemptive initiatives, we are left with post hoc alternatives like cleanups. Assuming Proposition 64 passes, Mourad said he hopes a significant portion of the resulting taxes go toward reclaiming and restoring former illegal grow sites. Only three to four percent of the 1,000 or more sites discovered every year on California's public lands are reclaimed, something generally done on a grant-to-grant basis, according to Mourad. It remains unclear how California will spend the estimated $1 billion in tax proceeds resulting from Proposition 64. Policy makers have earmarked funding for conservation, yet there is little information elucidating how and where this money will be spent. Legalizing recreational marijuana in California wouldn't necessarily be the magic bullet against large-scale illegal grows and resulting environmental harm. But if it can be assumed that the ship has already sailed in terms of legalization being a states' rights issue, then statewide legalization is arguably the best way forward to curb illegal, toxic grows in California. If the resulting taxes are utilized to restore damaged land and uniform regulatory standards are applied across the state, the transition will be all the smoother. It will take time to streamline and perfect legalization, of course. Progress may initially appear piecemeal. But what we can be certain of is this: Asymmetries and legal loopholes will remain in place that will incentivize and encourage illegal grows in the US unless there is blanket federal legalization. This is exactly where a 'yes' vote on Proposition 64 might serve as a Trojan horse. California will likely continue to push out unrivaled quantities of both legal and illegal marijuana. This has been the case historically and there is little to stop it now. Given the size of its marijuana market—California produces more weed than all of Mexico—a legal recreational cannabis economy in California would be simply too big to ignore at the federal level. It would underscore the "federalist problem" in the US, according to Rodrigo, where states often act in opposition to the federal government mandates. Understanding this, a 'yes' vote in California could singlehandedly catalyze change around marijuana at the federal level. If not, it would certainly trigger a domino-like effect toward legalization in other states that are on the fence. Where there has only been increasing environmental destruction and political inertia, this would certainly pressure the federal government to rethink its stance on weed. In the meantime, Mourad is gearing up for yet another cleanup in Lassen National Forest. Whoever was behind this 30,000-plant operation left behind 8,000 pounds of trash and 8,000 pounds of irrigation line over 15 acres of what was previously pristine public land. When Mourad arrived at the site, he found the rotting corpses of two gray foxes and a bear. "There needs to be some step forward, anything that is better than what we currently have in place," Mourad said. "What we have in place right now is a knotball that no one has untied." Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.

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