After removing illegal marijuana for 4 years, Tribe pauses Operation Yurok
ICT editorial team
After four years of aggressively eradicating environmentally destructive cannabis cultivation sites, Operation Yurok has delivered a major victory in the removal of all largescale marijuana grows on the Yurok Reservation.
“I attribute this accomplishment to the Operation Yurok team’s perseverance and tenacity toward enforcing the Tribe’s Zero Tolerance Policy, regarding all drugs, including medical marijuana,” said Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr., Chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “This year, the Tribe is going to push pause on the operation, but we will continue to closely monitor tribal lands for the foreseeable future to prevent any further damage to the environment. We are also working closely with Humboldt County officials to investigate potentially illegal gardens just outside of the reservation’s borders.”
Late last week, in preparation for this year’s operation, a Yurok Police Department investigator, working with staff members from the Tribe’s environmental protection and cultural resource programs, spent two full days in a helicopter flying over the lower 44 miles of the Klamath River, but did not encounter a single, large cannabis grow.
In 2013, the Tribe initiated the first Operation Yurok in response to a fast-growing number of people who had moved to the Tribe’s lands during the so-called Green Rush. Around the same time, three counties in close proximity to the reservation also saw a steep increase in illegal marijuana production, a likely by-product of the rural region’s minimal law enforcement and prime growing conditions. More cannabis is grown in Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino Counties than anywhere else in the United States.
The operation, now in its 5th year, aims to protect the reservation community from the many impacts associated with this black market industry. Those illegally cultivating cannabis on tribal lands have severely damaged several sacred sites, as well as habitat critical to fish and wildlife. Growers have illegally dammed up and diverted the flows of creeks that provide household water supplies to reservation families and support Klamath River salmon, an invaluable traditional resource. Additionally, tribal citizens are apprehensive about venturing into the forest because of the potential to be confronted by an armed grower.
“Reservation residents will no longer have to worry about running into unsavory people when they spend time in the forest,” said Chairman O’Rourke.
In the past four years, Operation Yurok has raided grows run by individuals from the east coast of the United States, Southeast Asia and Latin America, including members of Mexican and other drug cartels. Law enforcement officers have also found guns and ammunition at almost every site.
At its peak in 2015, Operation Yurok eradicated more than 1 ton of marketable marijuana and more than 70,000 plants from 43 sites. Non-Indians were responsible for all but two of those served search warrants.
The operation has received support from multiple local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, including: the US Department of Justice, US Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the California Governor’s Office, California National Guard Counterdrug Task Force, Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, California Water Quality Control Board, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and others.
“The Tribe would like to express our sincere appreciation to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, BIA and California Governor Jerry Brown, as well as every other agency that has participated in the annual operation,” Chairman O’Rourke said.
In the years after 2015, the quantity of search warrants and cannabis plant counts lessened by about half. During the operation in July of 2017, less than 10,000 plants were removed from the reservation.
The tremendous amount of environmental damage left in the wake of the approximately 150, previously active grow sites on the reservation will require an extended and extremely expensive effort to clean up. In several cases, growers had used heavy machinery to carve deep benches into mountains, removing all of the vegetation and even the topsoil. Trash heaps containing toxic chemicals, such as petroleum products and pesticides, were left in the forest. Hundreds of miles of plastic PVC pipe are strewn across several drainages that flow into the Klamath River. These are just a few examples of the types of costly environmental issues that the Tribe will now have to figure out how resolve.
TheYurok Tribeis the largest federally recognized Indian tribe in California and has a reservation that straddles the Lower Klamath River, extending for one mile on each side of the river, from its entry into the Pacific Ocean to approximately 45 miles upriver to the confluence with the Trinity River. The Tribe’s major initiatives include: natural resources management, fisheries protection, watershed restoration, dam removal, condor reintroduction, cultural revitalization, language preservation and land acquisition.