Science Photojournalist Morgan Heim Illuminates Environmental Cost of California’s Trespass Marijuana Grows

Morgan Heim Courtesy of Morgan Heim

In 2012, photojournalist and filmmaker Morgan Heim came across a study in PLOS One about Pacific fishers—house cat–sized carnivores that live in old-growth forests in the mountains of Northern California—being exposed to rat poison in a place where they shouldn’t be: our national parks and forests. One of the suspected causes was illegal industrial-scale marijuana grows, also known as “trespass grows,” set up by drug-trafficking organizations. Heim immediately knew this was a big deal, and a big story. “It was the kind of thing you see with rhino poaching or ivory trade in other countries,” she says. But then, she got scared. Even though she was several years into her career and was publishing in national magazines and working on international projects, she thought: “‘This is a project for someone who has more experience than me, and it’s too dangerous.’ So I put it down.”

A couple years later, another study came out: The rate of Pacific fishers’ exposure to rodenticides was up, and now scientists had clearly linked the poisoning to the chemicals used in marijuana grows. “We knew about the presence of marijuana grows in forests. But up to that point, we didn’t really have any idea what the environmental impacts looked like,” Heim says. Trespass grows have surged in national forests and national parks, and millions of plants are spread across California’s remote public lands. Pot growers use banned rodenticides to deter wildlife from their marijuana crops and campsites. These poisons are decimating wildlife, polluting lands and waters, and possibly impacting the health of marijuana consumers.

Around that time, the story got even more chilling. The cartels had apparently taken notice of the work of Drs. Mourad Gabriel and Greta Wengert—two of the main scientists studying the Pacific fishers’ plight and its connection to trespass grows. Someone came to their house (the two are married) and poisoned their dog with the same chemicals found at the grows.

Heim decided the story was too important to let drop again. “The whole reason I am doing this work is to be a voice for nature, for these issues,” she says. “I decided I can’t just let an issue that’s too scary stop me from covering it—otherwise, why did I pick up the camera in the first place?”

She contacted the U.S. Forest Service’s Craig Thompson, who was working with Gabriel and Wengert on the High Sierra population of Pacific fishers near Yosemite National Park. “They said, ‘Yes, please come.’ They had been waiting for someone to start documenting what was happening in these forests on public lands,” Heim says.

Steeling herself and paying for the first reporting trip out of her own pocket, she headed out in the field with armed wildlife biologists and forest rangers when they raided trespass marijuana grows set up by drug cartels deep in California wilderness. That expedition proved to be the first of many in her photographic project Trespass, about trespass grows’ environmental cost.

After four years of work, Heim’s efforts resulted in a feature article, “Backcountry Drug War,” published at bioGraphic in 2017 (and republished by The Atlantic and picked up by many other publications). For that article, Heim collaborated with journalist Julian Smith (who received an honorable mention for the piece in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Award for Reporting on the Environment). Heim’s 2017 short film Forgotten But Not Gone: The Pacific Fisher (produced by Day’s Edge Productions and also published at bioGraphic), about the existential threat that the Pacific fisher faces, was named a finalist in the G2 Green Earth Film Festival.

Recently Heim received the North American Nature Photography Association Foundation’s Philip Hyde Grant to expand her work on this story. New material she’s working on includes photographing the natural history of the area and documenting the lives of those involved in this story. “Never discount something that could trigger a much bigger journey for yourself,” Heim says. “For me, it started with a scientific journal article title that caught my eye.” Here, Heim talks with Christina Selby about the Trespass project. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


What was it like to be in the field and to document raids of trespass grows?

It was kind of exhilarating and really physically demanding. It wasn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be. We were bushwhacking through thick forest with a lot of deadfalls—not on trails. It can be dusty, smoky, and hot, and easy to trip in the terrain. On some trips, we hiked four miles in, to—hopefully—sneak up on an active grow. We were always with armed escorts. We all got our own bodyguards. You can’t take anything with you that has your name on it or identifies you because if you lose it out there, there’s concern the growers will find it and track you down. On the raids, you are trying to be quiet and stealthy. I didn’t walk at the front of the line—law enforcement officers went in first to make the bust.

With the reclamations [cleanups at grow sites that were raided and dismantled earlier], it’s not as intense. [Law enforcement] sweeps the area to make sure the growers haven’t come back, but there’s not the same element of danger as on the raids. Mourad and Greta lead a safety talk before every cleanup. There are rules for not wandering off alone and training in how to identify something that you probably shouldn’t touch.

[At the grow sites] you have to be careful. I’m often getting down on the ground and in close to things to make photos. I watch what I’m stepping on, crouching near, and touching, but there’s still a risk of being exposed to something. The environment is often very dry, so dust gets kicked up all over the place and that dust can be full of chemicals. After shoots, I clean all my gear and clothes and drink containers right away.

On the last drug bust that I went on, four or five out of ten guys ended up in the hospital from exposure while cleaning up. At least one guy was working around a stash of suspected carbofuran, but there are a lot of different chemicals out there. Scientists have found legacy levels of chemicals in the soil. That means enough chemicals used over and over again that it has seeped down inches into the ground where it’s stored and will continue to contaminate for years to come.

What gear do you carry with you to do your work?

I carry about 30 pounds of equipment—all my camera gear, and food and water since we are out there all day long.

I usually have two camera bodies with me. I started with Canon cameras, but moved to Sony mirrorless, for two reasons. It’s silent, so I can use the electronic shutter without worrying about exposing our approach with the sound of my camera shutter. It also performs well in low light, so I can pump up the ISO and get more range out of my camera. That’s important because we are going out sometimes at dawn and I can’t be using a flash to get my shot. That lets everybody know that we are on our way.


Heim on a reporting trip for Trespass, her project documenting the environmental costs of illegal marijuana grows on public lands. Morgan Heim


I’m mostly using wide-angle lenses, 24 mm and 50 mm, for this situation to capture the scientists working in the environment. I’m shooting more video now, so I would normally take a tripod to stabilize certain shots. But, if I’m doing a shoot that involves backpacking, I’m thinking about weight and what gear is going to be the most advantageous, and whether I’m going to shoot a lot of wildlife. If I’m photographing wildlife, it’s rare that I need a tripod. If I’m filming wildlife, I would want a tripod. There’s another piece of equipment called a handheld gimbal that allows me to get smooth footage while being mobile. It allows me to be stabilized enough for most needs and stay versatile and quick on my feet. At the end of the day, I’m making judgment calls based on the conditions I’ll be traveling in and what I need to shoot.

As a photojournalist, what reporting strategies do you rely on most?

I always think about what the main 10 or 12 images would be that would help create a story. Those images vary depending on what story you want to share. One story could concentrate on the science: What are all the pictures that have to do with the science-specific process? Another story might focus on the natural history of the landscape and what this place is supposed to be like without the marijuana grows.

Something I do a lot is look at photo stories in National Geographic or other magazines and reverse-engineer them. I think about how they made the choices they did about those pictures in the story.

I look at what aspects of the story the images are communicating. I read the text and then see how the images complement, but do not repeat, what’s just written in the text. I look at balances of wider storytelling images and detail shots, or how they are balancing stylized environmental portraits with journalistic imagery.

I also think about the breadth of the context covered by the images. You don’t want to clump all your images towards one aspect of the story. A National Geographic story isn’t going to have five photos showing different parts of the scientific process (unless the story is specifically about the science). That might be one or two images. Then they will have images that have been informed by the science, such as an image of an endangered cat on sale at an open-air market in a village. They’ll have images that show the cultural significance of the animal, and then they’ll have a few images of natural history and behavior of the animal.

When approaching a story, I’ll take those lessons and ask myself how that applies to what I’m documenting. What would a cultural photograph look like? What would be some important natural history photographs? How could I take a data set and visualize it conceptually in a photograph? What are the downstream effects of these activities and what photographs could illustrate those?

I will often make shot lists from my research and try to pre-visualize what’s going to happen. Before I went out on my first reporting trip for this story, I did interviews, read reports, and made my initial shot list from there. I then knew I would look for animals that died in the grows. I thought about how I might photograph [the dead animals] and what equipment I would need. I knew I wanted to get shots of [the scientists] conducting their investigation. For Trespass, that’s images of them swabbing the body of a poisoned fox or picking and bagging leaves from cannabis plants, collecting garbage. I added those general ideas to the shot list.

How did you choose to work with Julian Smith, the writer for “Backcountry Drug War”?

I had worked with Julian on a story about bison for The Nature Conservancy. We were both out in the field together at the same time, and we hit it off. I was about two years into the [Pacific fisher] project, and around then I was thinking about bringing in a writer, to work as a team. Besides the fact that you can concentrate on your own discipline, I felt like you could maximize the network each has to get the story out.

I told Julian about what was happening [with the trespass grows] and he was blown away by it. I started bringing him up to speed, introducing him to my contacts, and giving him some of the papers I had been reading. We worked together to decide the overarching angle for the story, which was to focus on the science, intrigue, and adventure.

How did you end up placing the story at bioGraphic? Who took the lead?

We collaboratively wrote a pitch and started sending it to different outlets. We got the story accepted by Playboy magazine. I was excited about that because it was a “non-choir” outlet. More often than not, science and environment stories end up in publications that already prioritize those kinds of stories, such as National Wildlife, bioGraphic, or Audubon. These are fantastic outlets. But there is an enormous amount of the public who are critically important to reach, who can be influential in making a difference, but who don’t gravitate towards those outlets. They are getting their news from other outlets. So that’s why I was excited about Playboy. I would think a story that involves drugs, intrigue, and an adventure with gun-toting law enforcement in our mountain forests could be an attention-grabber. I imagine there’s a fair number of their readership that, even if they could care less about the environment, would find themselves wanting to read that story.

In the end, the story didn’t end up getting printed at Playboy because of [editor] turnover at the magazine—they ended up killing our story after we turned it in. But we found another home for it almost immediately at bioGraphic. They did an amazing job on the layout, giving the visuals a lot of space.

Can you talk about the process of working with a writer in the field?

One of the biggest challenges in working with a writer is you physically use the space differently. With that project, Julian and I were organically able to work out that pattern so we weren’t conflicting. When a lot of the action was happening, Julian could hang back and observe. This gave him a lot of narrative information. That’s not when he needed to be conducting the interviews most of the time. So, this enabled me to be in the thick of things, photographing work as it happened. We were out in the field for hours, so there came a point when Julian could ask questions and I could photograph someone else while he did that.

In this situation where you, the photographer, found the story and put in all the initial legwork, how do you retain a sort of intellectual control over the process? Or do you? Especially since the text editor may not be looking at the photos (or video) at all during the editing process?

Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. It depends on the publication. Some publications just aren’t in the habit of accepting pitches from photographers. The best you can do is target publications you trust and work with writers who treat the whole thing as a team effort. Julian was always really respectful of putting me forward as the expert on the story. And at this point, I think a lot of people within the publication industry know I’m someone who has dedicated a lot of time to covering [Trespass].

Any other thoughts about the business aspect of collaborating with writers?

There were some issues that came up with the Playboy assignment. They offered what to me is a lot of money for the written story. [But] for me, they were offering $1,500 for all the photos I had ever taken on the project plus what I was going to shoot for them in the field. And on top of that, they were not going to pay for my travel, even though they were going to pay for Julian to travel. Then, they didn’t offer me a kill fee but they gave one to Julian. When they killed the story, I was out the cost of going to do the reporting. That’s been one of the challenges with the whole writing and photography. It makes me think, “Well shit, I would’ve written the story if I knew that it was going to be so inequitable.”

With bioGraphic, it was much better because they agreed to accept a package fee structure from Julian and me. We decided between us how that would break down. That was a much nicer way of dealing with the business side.

Photojournalists often comment that photos don’t just illustrate what is in the written text, but instead tell a parallel story. How do you think about that as a photographer?

You don’t want to just regurgitate the story in visuals. You want to show people other sides of it. You might have a few photos that more directly relate to what’s in the text, but it’s not necessarily the same exact moment. The narrative might describe a specific scene with certain people and your photo might have been taken at a different raid. It’s not necessarily the same raid that you are photographing and the one being described.

Even though Julian and I were out together on one [reporting] trip, it was helpful that I had gone out on four other trips to document the story. You wouldn’t get what I had on a single trip with the few days we had out there.

On my first trip I was able to document Pacific fisher research. On the second trip I was able to go on a couple reclamation trips, basically cleaning up sites that had already been busted. At that time, there weren’t any drug busts happening. The season had closed on that. Like with anything in life, different parts of the story happen at different times. The Pacific fisher reintroduction only happens at a specific time. I’m only out there for a week or 10 days at a time, and only so many things can be covered in that amount of time. On one trip I went from a reclamation trip, drove five hours to another region of California to visit the toxicology lab and make photos there, then five hours back to another region to photograph Pacific fishers. Photographing things actually happening just takes a lot of time. With writing, someone can talk to you about past things that have happened, and you can make that into an interesting read, but it’s really hard to make that into a photograph.


Heim placed electric tea lights in circular divots left where marijuana plants had been removed. Each light represents three plants. This image, originally published in bioGraphic, shows about 1,000 tea lights. Courtesy of Morgan Heim


I love the image included in the bioGraphic story where you used electric tea lights to show how many marijuana plants were in a section of the forest. How did you develop that idea?

I visited a few reclamation sites, where the plants and growing equipment had already been removed. I realized it was going to be hard to communicate to people the size of these grows. I was thinking about data visualization, but instead of making an infographic I was making a photograph.

When you are out there, you can see all the terraced rows with neat circular divots where the marijuana plants used to be hidden under the canopy of the forest. My idea was to put a tea light in each of those and wait until night to start making pictures. Each divot or light represents three plants per hole. The image you are talking about was about 1,000 tea lights in just one plot—so three to four thousand plants represented in that one area. There are usually several plots all over a mountain slope that make up the whole grow.

On that shot, I had two people assisting me: Jaymi Heimbuch [another photographer] and Craig Thompson, one of the biologists. They helped me put all the tea lights out, turn them on, hung out with me until night, and then we cleaned it all up. I couldn’t have gotten that photo without them.


Using the tea lights made it possible to visualize growing operations’ scale. “I was thinking about data visualization, but instead of making an infographic I was making a photograph,” Heim says. Images courtesy of Morgan Heim


Another photo that stands out to me in the bioGraphic article is the one of the Pacific fisher. It looks like it was taken with a remote camera trap. Could you talk about how you set up that photo and what the challenges were in capturing images of fishers?

I love that photo of the Pacific fisher being released in Yosemite National Park. It looks so cheeky, which sums up my feelings on the fisher. That photo was taken with a camera trap: a Canon EOS 50D DSLR camera body with a Canon 10-22mm lens, Cognisys Sabre infrared sensor triggered by movement, and two cable-connected Nikon SB-28 flashes. I had decided I didn’t want the box from the release in the photo, and angled the camera just to the left of the opening from a couple feet away. I wasn’t too worried about the camera hindering their release into the wild because these little guys had just spent several months growing up first in a rehab incubator at the Fresno-Chaffee Zoo and then in some outdoor enclosures at a private property just outside the park. While human interaction was very limited, they were pretty used to things being a little weird.


Heim used a camera trap to photograph a Pacific fisher kit being released into the wild in Yosemite National Park. Courtesy of Morgan Heim


One of the biggest challenges for even attempting the photo came not from the physical elements, but from misinformed government employees. I had been following these kits since they’d been rescued. The night before I was supposed to go out to photograph the reintroduction, an employee with the Park Service contacted my contact with the U.S. Forest Service, saying that I wasn’t allowed to photograph the event because they considered me a commercial photographer, and I needed a permit. The permit process can take a month, and the event had been announced just a week earlier. Not to mention the fact that I was not a commercial photographer. I was literally working off a grant from the Fund for Environmental Journalism, and the reintroduction was technically a news event. So, I had to take my letter from the grant, as well as the part of the code distributed by the Park Service outlining when permits were not required, and had to talk my way into being able to photograph the event on the day of the release. It helped that I had an advocate—the U.S. Forest Service biologist—too. To their credit, they let me set up traps at both their release sites.

My final challenge came when the kits came out of their box and proceeded to wrestle and play just to the side of my camera trap. They set off the trap, but all the photos either didn’t show the fishers, or just showed a butt or part of a nose. On top of that, I couldn’t photograph them using my other camera because a park employee had driven off to the other location with my telephoto lens inside their car. It was agonizing to sit there and watch several minutes of joyous play unfold with no means to document it. The photo used in the story is the only image that came out.


Capturing the release of a Pacific fisher on camera was no easy task, Heim says. When the kits came out of their box, she says, they “proceeded to wrestle and play just to the side of my camera trap. They set off the trap, but all the photos either didn’t show the fishers, or just showed a butt or part of a nose.” Images courtesy of Morgan Heim


How has the story contributed to the national conversation on the legalization of marijuana?

I’m trying to figure out how to measure that. I read online comments if the story has that. Usually people that comment want to complain about stuff. But it seems that no matter whether you are pro-legalization or anti, everyone thinks what’s going on out there is awful. They bring their own perspectives on what the solution should be depending on their stance on the issue. There does seem to be a lot of surprise at the level of impact that [the grows are] having.

The other thing I use to gauge interest is how the story ripples out after it was originally published. After bioGraphic, it was republished by San Francisco Magazine, then High Country News, then The Atlantic. Another story got published in Wired online. Discover and Newsweek also picked it up [that is, they ran their own stories on California’s trespass grows, using Heim’s photos], and then the Polish and German versions of Newsweek. So you see it resonating out into the universe. I take that as people are interested in what’s going on out there and wanting to see more.

What’s next for you on this story?

Mourad and Greta have written me into their grants as part of their communication strategy. I am no longer an independent journalist, but part of a collaboration.

There’s the scientific side of this, but there is also the personal side. I’m now looking at documenting the in-between moments: the lives and the dynamics of the people who are doing this work, and what this all means for them. I started to learn about everybody on a more personal level, and I think that photographing those sides of the story is also going to be helpful for making the public relate to what’s going on out there. They can start to see themselves in the work people are doing. I’m documenting family life and friendships. We are always trying to find ways for people to connect. In the writing, it’s the anecdotes that make you want to read the story, otherwise everyone would just read research papers. And we know that doesn’t happen, except for weirdos like me.

As photographers, we really need to figure out how to get beyond documenting [the scientific] process and show the moments. Moments are what make stories come to life. That’s where you have the room, I think, to make connection points beyond the choir. In a photo you can have the evidence of scientific work represented, along with seeing the scientists being parents. Then people can relate to what they are risking.


Christina Selby

Christina Selby is a freelance writer and photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She covers stories on the environment and conservation in the Southwestern U.S. and throughout the Americas. Her work has appeared in outlets such as bioGraphic, Scientific American, National Geographic Online, and High Country News. She was an early-career fellow at The Open Notebook in 2016. Follow her on Instagram @ChristinaMSelbyPhoto and Twitter @ChristinaSelby.

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