Thursday, July 30, 2009
Drug Cartels in CA Sierras
Cartels Turn U.S. Forests Into Marijuana Plantations, Creating Toxic
By PHIL TAYLOR of Greenwire
July 30, 2009
Empty turtle shells, decaying skunk carcasses and a set of deer antlers
lay strewn about an empty campsite in California's Sierra National
The butchered animals, as well as several five-pound propane canisters,
camp stoves and heaps of trash, were all that remained of the 69
marijuana plantations recently uncovered in Fresno County as part of
operation "Save our Sierras."
The massive operation that began in February has already seized about
318,000 marijuana plants worth an estimated $1.1 billion, officials
announced last week. In addition to 82 arrests, the multi-jurisdictiona l
federal, state and local operation netted 42 pounds of processed
marijuana, more than $40,000 in cash, 25 weapons and three vehicles.
"Mexican drug trafficking organizations have been operating on public
lands to cultivate marijuana, with serious consequences for the
environment and public safety," said Gil Kerlikowske, chief of the White
House's Office of National Drug Control Policy at a briefing on the
Subjects arrested were booked on charges of cultivation of marijuana,
possession for sale, possession of a firearm during commission of a
felony and conspiracy.
The drug plantations are as much an environmental menace as they are a
public safety threat.
Growers in Fresno County used a cocktail of pesticides and fertilizers
many times stronger than what is used on residential lawns to cultivate
their crop. "This stuff leaches out pretty quickly," said Shane Krogen,
executive director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew in charge of
helping clear the land of chemicals and trash so it can begin its slow
While the chemical pesticides kill insects and other organisms directly,
fertilizer runoff contaminates local waterways and aids in the growth of
algae and weeds. The vegetation in turn impedes water flows that are
critical to frogs, toads and salamanders in the Kings and San Joaquin
rivers, Krogen said.
The Sierra operations are the latest in a growing number of illegal
plantations run by foreign suppliers who have moved north of the
U.S.-Mexico border where they are closer to U.S. drug markets. Of the 82
individuals arrested in the "Save our Sierras" sting, all but two were
Mexican or some other foreign nationality.
Bankrolled by sophisticated drug cartels, suppliers are sidestepping
border patrols to grow in relative obscurity on Forest Service, Bureau
of Land Management and National Park Service lands across the West and
even into the Southeast.
"It's easier to cross the border to grow marijuana on public lands than
to grow it in Mexico and smuggle it across," Krogen said.
Earlier this month, $2.5 million worth of marijuana was seized from a
sophisticated pot-growing operation in the mountains near Colorado's
Cheesman Reservoir in the Pike National Forest. In early June, hikers in
a remote area of southwest Idaho stumbled upon a marijuana crop that
netted 12,545 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of $6.3
"There is a growing issue of marijuana cultivation on public lands in
the U.S., especially in California and Oregon, and it appears they have
discovered southwestern Idaho," said BLM special agent in charge Loren
Temperate climates on the West Coast have nurtured what has become a
booming marijuana market. The number of marijuana plants confiscated by
Forest Service officials has risen by an average of 51 percent in each
of the past four years, reaching a high of 3.3 million plants in 2008.
The number of plants seized in California national forests alone has
risen steadily from 569,000 in 2003 to 2.4 million in 2008.
"It's definitely a trend," said Keith McGrath, a law enforcement officer
in BLM's Idaho office who was part of last month's raid in a far-flung
"We're seeing a shift to more organized grows and larger grows," McGrath
said. "They're being set up and run through the cartels, and it's
becoming a big chunk of our work load."
Strengthening law enforcement
Federal agencies are responding by beefing up law enforcement patrols
and investing in technologies like helicopter surveillance and unmanned
aerial drones to track down marijuana growers operating in California's
Forest Service law enforcement staff was doubled from 14 to 28 agents in
California between 2007 and 2008, said spokesman John Heil, resulting in
the eradication of 3.1 million marijuana plants in the last fiscal year.
Congress is responding too, with a recent $3 million supplemental
appropriation secured by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that allowed
the Park Service to add 25 new law enforcement officers to its Pacific
Region parks, said Ron Sundergill, regional director for the Washington,
D.C.-based National Parks Conservation Association.
Sundergill applauded the land management agencies for increasing the
pressure on illegal growers but said he fears such efforts are depleting
agencies' already-thin budgets for things like interpretive services and
"Our parks shouldn't have to spend their limited resources fighting drug
cartels when those resources could instead be used to educate and
inspire our children -- the future stewards of our national parks,"
More money is likely to be provided if Congress approves Interior's
fiscal 2010 budget later this year. Feinstein, who chairs the
subcommittee in charge of Interior spending, said she was concerned over
the increasing threat of drug cartels on public lands and would look to
increase resources for enforcement.
Meanwhile, agency officials say they will remain vigilant in seeking out
marijuana growers, even as they venture deeper into the nation's public
"As more pressure happens in California, they're going to start looking
at Oregon, Nevada and Idaho," said Krogen, of the High Sierra Volunteer
Trail Crew. "Then they'll start looking at the Southeast too, closer to
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