Marijuana War Smolders On U.S. Public Lands

Sean Markey in Redding, California
National Geographic News
November 4, 2003
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Under a blistering sun, the unit files silently through the forest's steep ridges and deep canyons. The 14 men wear woodland camouflage, carry assault rifles, and whisper into radio headsets. Their quarry: a small band of armed insurgents tending a million-dollar backcountry marijuana garden for international drug traffickers.

The setting for this recent skirmish in the war on drugs may sound like some faraway South American jungle.

But the raid, led by law enforcement officers of the United States Forest Service and a Shasta County Sheriff's Office S.W.A.T. team, took place earlier this summer along the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, a two-million-acre (800,000-hectare) backcountry in northern California 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of the Oregon border.

The sweep was one in a series of drug interdictions that has become routine for the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Forest Service. In the past eight years, the agency has found itself in an ongoing battle with Mexican drug-trafficking organizations that investigators say have moved across the border to carve networks of clandestine marijuana plantations into national forests and other public lands deep inside U.S. territory.

Agents estimate the street value of marijuana planted on national forests in California alone exceeds one billion dollars (U.S.) a year.

"It's an epidemic," said Laura Mark, a 25-year Forest Service veteran and assistant special agent in charge of drug investigations in California. "National forests and public lands are literally being taken over by drug trafficking organizations for the production of marijuana," said Mark, who is based in Nevada City, California.

The Forest Service faces a brazen and determined foe in Mexican drug cartels. Traffickers smuggle hundreds of undocumented Mexican workers; tons of agricultural equipment, pesticides, fertilizer, and food; and illegal weapons into backcountry garden sites during the four- to five-month growing season from early spring to late September and early October. (See sidebar)

Agents say the crisis has strained a law enforcement agency grappling with an aging workforce, understaffing, and budget pressures.

Billion-Dollar Industry

National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service lands and other state, federal, and private acreage from Hawaii to Kentucky have become hosts to an increasing share of the illegal gardens.

But no public land management agency has been more heavily impacted than the Forest Service, and nowhere is the problem more acute than in California.

Networks of backcountry fire and logging roads, rich soil, abundant sun, and reliable water sources provide drug traffickers easy access and ideal growing conditions on the relatively secluded Forest Service lands in the state.

Since 1997, the agency has eradicated seven million pounds (three million kilograms) of marijuana grown in California national forests, according to Dan Bauer, a Forest Service senior special agent based in Washington, D.C., and the agency's national program coordinator for counter-drug operations.

In 2001, Forest Service agents uprooted 495,000 plants worth an estimated U.S. $1.8 billion from national forests in the state. Last year, over 420,000 plants worth $1.5 billion were seized.

"If we're lucky, that's probably a third of what's being grown out there," Jerry Moore, the Forest Service's top law enforcement officer in California, said of last year's haul.

This year, drug cartels appear to have grown another bumper crop, investigators say. While final counts have yet to be tallied, Mark, the Forest Service's regional drug investigator, estimates close to 400,000 marijuana plants were seized on national forest lands in California in the 2003 season.

Uphill Battle

In the Western U.S., marijuana cultivation represents one of the most serious law enforcement issues the Forest Service has faced in its 98-year history.

The battle comes at a time when many officers say staff and resources for the agency's law enforcement arm are stretched thin, competing with fire fighting and resource management initiatives within the broader, 34,700-employee agency for public attention and funds.

Across the U.S., there are roughly 640 law enforcement officers and special agents that police the country's 191.6 million acres (77.5 million hectares) of national forests.

Special agents investigate serious crimes, including arson, fire, timber theft, and drug production. Officers actively assist those cases while tackling daily patrol duties that range from campground disturbances to backcountry rescues and forest resource uses.

In California, 130 officers and agents patrol nearly 25 million acres (10 million hectares) of backcountry spread among 18 national forests, an area equal to nearly one-fifth of the entire state.

"We're fighting a huge fight with just a small amount of people," said Denese Stokes, a 29-year Forest Service employee and the sole special agent for drug investigations on four national forests covering 3.5 million acres (5,470 square miles) in southern California.

Together with Ken Harp, a patrol captain in San Bernardino National Forest, Stokes paused from a months-long surveillance of suspected drug cartel operatives earlier this summer to drive a visiting reporter through the mountains of San Bernardino National Forest southeast of Los Angeles, past rugged canyons and ridges both said were thick with illegal marijuana crops.

Stokes said 25,000 to 50,000 marijuana plants are rooted out of the rugged backcountry each year. The fact highlights a key dilemma facing the Forest Service: While officers and agents often know areas actively cultivated by growers, identifying specific garden sites requires expensive aerial reconnaissance. And hiking into the backcountry to raid and remove cannabis plantations during the hot summer months is arduous and time consuming—not to mention dangerous.

"We have eight people in this [state] that are dedicated to drug enforcement," said Harp. "This one cartel has 60 or 80." Harp, a 33-year Forest Service veteran, oversees patrol operations for the 700,000-acre (280,000-hectare) forest that receives six million visitors annually with a staff of five.

Stokes concedes that the frustration level can be overwhelming. "Everybody wants to get the job done," she said. "Everybody is working, giving 200 percent, and it's like we're just running into brick walls. We just don't have the manpower."

Deadly Season

Cannabis and profits reaped from national forests are not the only concern for law enforcement.

Growers have increasingly armed themselves with high-caliber assault rifles, shotguns, and other firearms. During the June raid on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest garden, for example, agents seized AK-15 and SKS assault rifles with military-style, double-stacked ammo clips.

"There's not a type of gun that we haven't found," said Mark.

Law enforcement officers and agents say hikers, hunters, and other backcountry users have been chased away at gunpoint after stumbling into marijuana gardens.

Tensions mount in late September and early October when the peak marijuana harvest season coincides with hunting season. In early October, two deer hunters pressing into the backcountry of the Los Padres National Forest outside Ojai reported shots fired at them by marijuana farmers.

Law enforcement officers who raid marijuana gardens face even greater risks.

"Growers used to drop their guns and run," said Brian Adams, an officer on the Sequoia National Forest roughly 120 miles (190 kilometers) north of Los Angeles. "Now some are starting to stand their ground."

In September, the trend took a fatal turn over the span of one deadly week when law enforcement officers shot and killed four marijuana growers of Mexican citizenship in two separate incidents in Shasta and Butte counties. The growers leveled assault rifles as authorities raided gardens growing adjacent to national forest lands. Investigators say the plots were run by Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

During the same month, Roberta Wright, an officer on the Los Padres National Forest, was among a multi-agency law enforcement team that was fired upon with a shotgun while raiding a garden in the Los Padres National Forest in San Luis Obispo County.

The violence has yet to approach the levels once seen during the early 1980s when booby traps, warning shots, and shootouts among mostly white, independent growers and law enforcement officers were not uncommon. But Forest Service officers and agents say they find the high-power firearms and escalating violence disturbing.

Moore, the top Forest Service law enforcement officer in California, said it's only a matter of time before a law enforcement officer gets seriously injured or killed. "Every year the stakes keep going up," he said.

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