REDWAY CA, Jan. 18, 1999: Eyewitnesses described the environmental and human harm caused by marijuana eradication helicopters at public hearings on the US Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) proposed guidelines for marijuana eradication operations in Northern California.
Complaints included damage to wildlife and livestock, disruption of work and school, hazards to endangered bird species, dangerous encounters with helicopters and armed personnel, distress and trauma to residents in need of peace and quiet, and habitual disregard of legally mandated procedures by California's CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting) helicopter program.
The hearings were organized by the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project (CLMP) and The Rights Organization (TRO) on behalf of plaintiffs in a federal suit against the government's 1990 Operation Greensweep, in which helicopters and armed troops invaded a remote wilderness area of Humboldt County to eradicate marijuana. As part of a settlement, U.S. district judge Fern Smith ordered that the BLM prepare guidelines to address the adverse environmental and human impacts of anti-marijuana operations.
The hearings were presided over by retired California appeals court judge William Newsom, who promised to issue findings after reviewing the transcripts. TRO director Ed Denson introduced the hearings by noting that a young generation of southern Humboldt residents had grown up without knowing a summer of peace in the wilderness free from anti-marijuana helicopter disruption. Succeeding witnesses were universally critical of the helicopter operations.
Witnesses took strong exception to the BLM's assumption that helicopter operations above 500 feet pose no serious threat to endangered birds. Environmental expert Linda Derkson presented evidence that flights beneath 2,000 feet could cause serious harm by disrupting migration patterns and inducing desertion of nests. Rare bird breeder Fred Bauer testified that he had suffered $40,000 in losses from broken eggs, abandoned nests and breeding deaths caused by CAMP helicopters. Witnesses testified that helicopters routinely came down to tree-top level, endangering nesting birds by using their prop-wash to blow down foliage in search of marijuana.
Horse trainer Susan Carmada testified how helicopters panicked horses to the point of injury, dangerously startled riders, and once maliciously chased a colt and its mother around the field. Other animal breeders complained of harm to rabbits, emu, and buffalo.
Residents who had moved to Humboldt County for wilderness peace and quiet testified to the trauma caused by helicopters. Telecommuter Shelly Comes described how helicopters made it impossible to conduct business calls with Silicon Valley and Europe. Vietnam vets testified how the noise of helicopters exacerbated post-traumatic stress.
Schoolteacher Kim Kemp testified that helicopters had landed on her schoolgrounds unannounced and once caused so much noise as to force her to close her school.
CLMP spokesperson Bernadette Webster described how her daughter, Blossom, was upset after encountering a gun-toting Operation Greensweep guardsman in camouflage gear, who refused to identify himself.
Former CAMP officers backed up residents' claims of widespread abuses and violations of legal enforcement procedure. "Every officer that's been in a helicopter involved in the CAMP program, if they were going to tell you the truth, would say yes, we have flown under 500 feet, we got as close as we could to the treetops to hover, we have looked into people's windows," testified Gary Holder, a former deputy sheriff and CAMP officer.
Holder warned that enforceability of guidelines would be a major problem, since CAMP personnel are brought in from out of county and trained to believe that "everybody out there is a bad guy."
Former CAMP commander Gene Womack complained that confiscated marijuana was stored in a pit just 100 yards from the dormitory of the Eel River conservation camp correctional facility, creating an attractive nuisance for prisoners, many of whom ended up being charged with marijuana offenses at considerable state expense.
California NORML coordinator Dale Gieringer called the use of helicopters and paramilitary personnel "unwarranted and inappropriate" in view of the minimal harms posed by marijuana. He argued that the only way to control its cultivation would be through legally regulated commerce. The BLM declined to send spokesmen to the hearings, claiming that they were concerned about their physical security in a hostile community.
Local residents scoffed at the excuse, noting the strong pacifist sentiments of the Southern Humboldt community. Denson invoked the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., who called on followers to "to keep on, and then keep on keeping on" resisting government wrong through non-violent means.
The BLM guidelines are open to public comment until Feb. 10th. For more info, contact the CLMP office at (707) 923-4646 or Ron Sinoway at (707) 923-3905.