We’re sitting in his pickup truck a few miles from his house in central Trinity. About 10 years ago, nothing but forest surrounded this winding dirt road. Now it’s lined with marijuana farms. Cannabis plants pop out everywhere.
The road cuts through Trinity Pines, a private subdivision tucked in National Forest land. There are hundreds of lots where people farm medical marijuana for dispensaries. And, in the surrounding National Forest, drug cartels have been caught growing for the black market.
We pass a heap of trash with an old camper someone dumped by the side of the road. The words “haul away” are sprayed in black on its side. “That’s what you get,” Bower says. “Junk, junk, junk.”
Joseph Bower and his wife, Susan, have lived in Trinity County for close to 40 years. “I'm fine with growers who want to live here, live on the land, send their kids to school, pay their taxes," Bower says. "As long as they obey the rules and don't create environmental problems."
Cannabis farming is a way of life in the "Emerald Triangle" counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity. But it's also a source of tension. Over the last decade people have been flooding in, hoping to strike it rich by cultivating cannabis. The industry could grow even faster if Californians pass Proposition 64 and legalize recreational marijuana. With the way the polling looks now, it seems like there’s a good chance that will happen.
Bower says if voters decide to legalize marijuana this November, the problems in Trinity won't just go away. They could even worsen under the pressure of bigger businesses and more competition. Legalization has smaller growers in the area worried as well. You can read this story about two small-time cultivators in Humboldt County who have a plan to survive as the industry balloons.
Bower says it's up to local communities to keep the "green rush" in check. In Trinity, the pressure of the industry is bringing people together who have been at odds for decades. Environmentalists like Bower are now joining forces with their mortal enemies -- loggers like Clarence Rose.
Rose lives in Weaverville, about an hour's drive from Joseph and Susan Bower's home. With around 3,600 people, Weaverville is the largest town in Trinity County. It, too, is surrounded by marijuana grows.
“If we can start to get the message out that this county is no longer a pushover for exploitative growers, that would be huge,” Rose says.
Rose moved to Trinity in the '70s when logging was king. “Trinity County had seven sawmills,” Rose says. “You could start from nowhere, and by hard work over the years you could become part of the middle class. Those opportunities don't exist the way they did once. So people are turning to other means to make a living.”
After moving to Trinity, Rose fought against environmentalists like Bower for decades in what's known here as “the timber wars.” Now the two have a common enemy.
“We’re in this green-rush phase and it's attracted people from all over the country who know that we're vulnerable here,” Rose says. “We're being taken advantage of by people with all kinds of different motives, but all revolving around money.”
Rose wishes there were no marijuana farms in Trinity County, but he says that is not possible. Marijuana cultivation is too entrenched. So he is joining forces with a third ally in this unlikely coalition: small-time, mom-and-pop cannabis farmers like Liz McIntosh and her husband, Duncan.
“The understanding that there is big business that wants to come into our community has pushed all the moderates together,” Duncan says. “It got the dialogue moving that cannabis wasn't really the issue.”
The ordinance sets guidelines for cultivation and establishes a permitting process like they have done in nearby Humboldt County. It has provisions to try and slow down the number of big new growers pouring into Trinity. Liz says the ordinance limits farms to 10,000 square feet and requires every grower to be a resident.
Liz and Duncan hope the ordinance becomes adopted for the long term so that small growers can get legal. “None of us have our permits,” Duncan says. “It's a little anxious for everybody because we don't know if we're going to stick our necks out and get our heads cut off.”
Liz says there is still lots of work to do, but forming this unlikely coalition has been a big first step. Liz and Duncan say they never thought they would be sitting down with loggers and environmentalists to hash out policy.
Duncan says, “Either we're going to work with them or we're going to lose everything."
In the end Bower, Rose and the McIntoshes all want the same thing: to protect their community and rural way of life.