Take Back Our Forests?

by Mark Scaramella, March 7, 2012

At the February 28 meeting of the Supervisors, Dan Hamburg asked that a seemingly innocuous item on the consent calendar be brought up for full discussion and a separate vote. Hamburg seemed alarmed that the County might co-sponsor a forthcoming event called, “Take Back Our Forests,” presented by the Jere Melo Foundation.

Melo was shot to death by Aaron Bassler late last fall on a parcel of timberland that Melo managed just north of Fort Bragg. Bassler, who was a mentally ill but high functioning, was growing, or attempting to grow, opium poppies on the parcel. Trespass grows by armed men or syndicates of armed men, are an ongoing problem for Mendocino County landowners.

The proposed event is advertised this way: “The Jere Melo Foundation will present a public forum, Take Back Our Forests on Friday, March 30th, 2012 at 6pm at Cotton Auditorium in Fort Bragg. The forum will educate the public on the dark realities caused by trespass marijuana grows that exist in our forests and open spaces within Mendocino County. The Foundation is requesting that the County of Mendocino be a listed sponsor. Presenters for the forum include US Representative Mike Thompson, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, Program Director Chris Kelly of the Conservation Fund and the Willits Environmental Center. There is no charge to attend the forum. More information on the forum is available at jeremelo.org.”

In other words, a group of people getting together to lament the marijuana industry's annual occupation of large swathes of Mendocino County forest, public and private.

“This is not something I really relish doing,” explained Hamburg, “to not agree with County sponsorship of this event, this forum, excuse me. I think I have made clear in the past that the idea that we can take back our forests to me is not one that makes a lot of fiscal sense or makes a lot of practical sense. The theme of this event, taking back our forests, is predicated on what I see in the lead-in to the program. Mr. Mike Thompson is going to be the keynote speaker. He testified recently that illegal grows constitute a national emergency. Whether it truly is a national emergency, I don't know if that's true. I don't know if people in North Dakota and Kansas and Texas consider this a national emergency. I do realize that there are parts of Mendocino County that have been very negatively affected by marijuana growing. I've said before and I will say again that I think a solution to illegal grows is legalization. And I think if we put our energy into changing the law we would get a lot closer to the outcome we want which is to stop illegal growing and stop the environmental damage and so on. I see the purpose of this forum as being basically to get the message out that there is a crisis on private and public forestlands and to leverage that into more state and federal participation in getting rid of illegal pot grows. I think Mike Thompson, Congressman Thompson, has made it clear that he wants to put more federal assets, including federal intelligence assets, into this purpose. I know from talking to assemblyman Chesbro that he is writing a bill that to put more state assets into this area. I told both Congressman Thompson and Assemblyman Chesbro that I do not think this is a wise use of public funds. I think again if we put the energy into legalizing marijuana that we’re putting in to trying to stop these grows that we would get a lot further. We have been at the war on marijuana now for three decades. Billions have been spent. Thousands of people are in our jails. Kids have their lives ruined, both by too much use of marijuana, but also by the sanctions that the government applies against people who are found using marijuana or with small amounts of marijuana. The other thing about this and it prompts me to vote no is, I think that what happened last fall beginning with the shooting and the death of Matt Coleman and then to the death of Jere Melo was not about illegal marijuana grows. It was about the inability of our mental health system, the county's mental health system, the overall mental health system that's available to people in the county, both from Mendocino County and from other sources, to respond to a family that did everything that they could to identify the fact that they had a son who was in very bad trouble. I'm not trying to point a finger and blame any specific person for that. But I think making these tragedies of last summer and fall about marijuana grows is really a misplacement of what happened here. If this was the Jere Melo-Matt Coleman foundation to try to enhance services to the mentally ill people in our society, I'd be the first one to line up and say Right on. But again, to make this about continuing to pursue a policy that I think is not, has not worked, is not working, will not work, at a time when governments at all levels are stretched to do what the people are looking for them to do is just not a direction that I as one supervisor can support. I realize, and particularly I want to say this to Supervisor Smith and Brown who sponsored this item, I respect what you are doing, I understand your feelings about this, but I also think I have to be honest about my feelings and although I think the Jere Melo foundation as a 501(c)3 is free to sponsor any educational forums that it wants to now and in the future, I as one supervisor am not going to offer my vote as a sponsor.”

Hamburg's stand would not carry the day, but what kind of forum to discuss this issue would not include this perspective?

Supervisor Carre Brown: “It's really truly unfortunate that a lot of information, a lot of misinformation is transforming the real focus and emphasis of this educational forum. I know I am very interested in the information that will be shared with the public and I do intend to attend. As an individual supervisor, Supervisor Hamburg, I understand from your statement that you are not going to support it and you really don't need to. But I think it's really important for the County to join in sponsorship, or at least listing our name, there is no financial obligation, and join our Congressman Mike Thompson, our Sheriff, the Conservation Fund, the Willits Environmental Center, and move forward with the sponsorship.

Supervisor Kendall Smith, who represents the Fort Bragg area, also disagreed with Hamburg: “The focus of the conference, or the forum, is really about large trespass grows on large holdings of land which we know in Mendocino County there are many of, both in private holdings and in our large public land holdings…” Smith then veered off into another completely irrelevant history of meetings she had attended years ago which, she seemed to say, had some tangential connection to the subject of the forum.

Supervisor John Pinches reminded his colleagues that the Board was already on record supporting legalization. “I went to a forum a while back at the Willits Community Center and spoke to a Forest Service guy there who was fairly high up and he said that marijuana is a problem in every National Forest in every state, including Hawaii, in the United States. If anybody thinks that they can take any amount of — even if it's the Army — any amount of military, Air Force, and eradicate that large an area, consider that, all of our national forests in all the United States, and it's an annual growing season, any common sense would tell you that the only solution is federal legalization. Nothing else is going work. Why are people doing illegal grows on public land? Number one, if they get caught the land cannot be confiscated because they don't own it in the first place and number two, it's pretty cheap rent if you can go out there and — there's only one solution… The only thing I disagree with Supervisor Hamburg about is when he said it's been going on for three decades. I believe it's been going on for over four decades. I couldn't have said what Supervisor Hamburg said any better. If we in Mendocino County don't believe the solution is the federal legalization of marijuana, how much money are we willing to put up for the next 40 years, out of education, out of our roads, any sort of federal money, help for our seniors and kids, how much money are we willing to commit to keep the price of pot up, to keep it high. It's time to end this. And if we don't send a clear message from little old Mendocino County that we believe the only solution is legalization then we are just going to process ourselves into another 40 years of the same thing. And we cannot afford 40 more years the way we been going.”

Supervisor McCowen offered another perspective: “I hope we can avoid confusing the issue here. The issue that is in front of us today is whether we choose to participate in a forum that really has the intention, I believe, of honoring Jere Melo. I will agree that the focus of the foundation could have been on mental health services. It could have been on forestry. Madeline Melo [Jere Melo’s widow] has apparently chosen that it be on the issue of reclaiming our public and private lands from trespass grows. I think that's a decision that she is free to make. It's the way that she has chosen to honor Jere Melo and I am going to respect her wishes and I hope that when we get to hitting the button on this that everyone who has spoken will have had an opportunity to reflect and maybe reconsider and understand that this particular item is not about national marijuana policy. It's about honoring Jere Melo. I agree wholeheartedly and the Board agrees and it's part of our legislative platform that we support national reform of the national marijuana laws. So again I think we can have that position and still support this forum. Federal prohibition is not a solution in any way whatsoever, but turning our back and doing nothing to try and reclaim and protect our public lands and our ranch lands is not a solution either. That's only going to guarantee a larger influx of illegal trespass grows with their threats to public safety, with their damage to the environment.”

Sheriff Allman: “To Supervisors Hamburg and Pinches, I can respect where you're coming from. We have had one-on-one conversations. We have talked a lot. I want to talk about the week of August 21 before Jere Melo was savagely killed on the 27th. That week we spent five days with one of our deputy sheriffs going around to timberland trespass grows and seeing the environmental degradation which was occurring because of marijuana. Whether you call it illegal, medicine, legal marijuana, I'm just going to stick with marijuana right now. Marijuana was causing a problem on large timber tracts of land and we as a government have an obligation to try and prevent some of the environmental degradation, the roads being ruined, the gates being torn down, the culverts being ripped out. We have that obligation. I think this forum that we are looking at at the end of March is nothing but education. If you two [Hamburg and Pinches] wanted to show up at the forum and make that presentation I think there would be people who would want to hear that presentation. But this is merely an educational forum where we can sit around and talk about the situation. We owe that to our constituents. As elected leaders we encourage education. We encourage dialogue. We encourage forums. To not be unanimous in this to the community that we serve is a very unfortunate situation. Because we are not saying we want marijuana legal, or we want marijuana illegal or that we want public lands patrolled. What we're saying is were going to sit down and we are going to agree to discuss it. That's all we’re going to do. The Sheriff's office is going to continue with our five enforcement objectives that I have said to this Board several times: trespass grows, enforcement and eradication on public lands, going after people who were doing environmental degradation, going after people who are stealing water and illegal diversions, and the large commercial grows. Those are five areas that I think the vast majority of people in our County say, yes, that's the role of law enforcement to go after until there is a decision made about the legality or illegality of marijuana because we are still hoping for our United States Supreme Court to make that decision. As far as mental health, Supervisor Hamburg, I would welcome that. I would welcome any foundation, any group of people who want to sit around and talk about any way we can improve mental health in our County. But that's not what these people have chosen to do. They said let's sit and talk about marijuana! Supervisors Hamburg and Pinches, I want to encourage you to support this just for the fact that it's going to be a conversation and the more we talk about it the closer we are to a solution.”

Paul Trouette, a County Fish and Game commissioner and one of the people who has been hired by Hawthorne-Campbell to replace Melo as a security contractor, said he agreed with Allman and pointed out that in the last month he and his crew had encountered 29 marijuana garden sites on the north coast and in Usal in northwestern Mendocino County. “And I have not even scratched the surface on this timberland yet,” Trouette added. “We have found horrific poisons brought in from out of the country in the ecosystem. … We have a land that is occupied and it is growing at an alarming rate. … We now have to take firearms and go out and patrol these properties and risk our lives to clear the properties of this bad situation.”

McCowen repeated that he supported endorsing the forum to honor Jere Melo and that he hoped that the Board voted to participate unanimously.

Hamburg wouldn’t budge: “I'd be the first to acknowledge that there are many different ways to look at this. It's kind of interesting that sometimes the things we pull off consent [calendar] end up being some of the most contentious, or not contentious, things that don't have an easy way to look at them one way or the other. I know there are bad things going on out in the forest. When we did Full Court Press just the numbers alone showed that there were a lot of bad things going on out there. But getting back to the idea that the marijuana war grinds on and on and you keep hearing the same thing year after year after year after year. It wasn't too many years ago, Mr. Chairman, that you spearheaded Measure B. And then you spearheaded 9.31 and both of those were going to be things that would really help clean up the situation. In every war there are always reports out there about horrors out there and victories that are just over the hill, if we just do this or just do that. I can't really agree that this is just about talk. I don't think all these people are going to get together just to talk. I think they are going to get together to plot an action strategy. That's what I would be doing. And that action strategy involves inevitably the expenditure of public money, state money and federal money, and Mr. Chairman you know as well as anybody in this County what the competition is for scarce public funds. If you believe and if other members of this Board believe that this is the number one priority and what we should be seeking state Senate and federal money for and putting local dollars into, so be it. You can support that and you can vote for it. But I really don't believe this is just about sharing information. It's definitely about plotting action strategies and God knows Jere Melo was a man of action. So I'm sure this would be an action-oriented kind of forum. I also bristle at the idea that it's somehow dishonoring Jere to not support this particular forum. I don't know how Jere — if this is what Jere would have chosen to be his legacy. But I really do get back to the point I raised before which was that Jere was killed by someone who was mentally ill. If this was about trying to deal with mental health services in the county then I would be the first one to line up. But the choice has been to make this about taking back our forests from the marijuana growers and again I don't think that's something that I am going to get behind in terms of putting public resources into it that would be required. Supervisor Pinches pointed out that it is this Board’s position that legalization is the way to stop the criminality that's going on. I continue to believe that that’s the case and I that's where I would like to see the energy placed.”

The motion passed 3-2 with Supervisors Pinches and Hamburg dissenting.

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