Marijuana: Cultivation and Eradication on California’s National Forests
Author: U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region
Published on Aug 21, 2009 - 9:35:00 AM
August 21, 2009 - In this episode of Forest Focus, John Heil of the Pacific Southwest Region Public Affairs Staff investigates the issue of marijuana cultivation and eradication on the National Forests in California by interviewing experts in the field from various agencies.
John Heil: Welcome to Forest Focus, a series of programs about the National Forest of California. I’m John Heil and today we’re discussing marijuana eradication. Here with me is Regional Forester, Randy Moore. Randy, marijuana is a serious problem on the National Forests. Why should the general public be concerned?
Randy Moore: Well the general public should be concerned because there’s a lot of hazards associated with illegal marijuana growing. The cartels that are controlling or growing the marijuana out on National Forest system lands are heavily armed. It’s very dangerous to our employees and publics that happen to run across them. And also, there’s a huge danger associated with the herbicides and pesticides that are used to grow this illegal marijuana. We also have an issue with natural resource damages out there, such as stream diversions, damage to vegetation, sometimes a permanent loss of vegetation on some of these sites. We also have animals that are being killed. Just recently we found a ringtail cat that had been killed, and that’s an endangered species. And they also leave trash such as propane tanks which can cause an explosion should a fire happen to run across. And we have a tremendous expense of hauling the trash out. And so, the public should be concerned because there’s a lot of hazards associated with illegal marijuana growing.
John Heil: Thank you Randy. Our first guest is Patrick Foy, a Game Warden with the California Department of Fish and Game. Patrick, have you seen an increase in the amount of marijuana being grown in California?
Patrick Foy: It’s unbelievable the numbers of plants and gardens that are out there. And I’d say, there are probably, it’s hard to guess, but I’d say between 7 and 900 gardens throughout the entire state. That’s a lot of activity and a lot of very dangerous people out there armed with weapons and willing to kill to protect their profit. For the most part, you know, wardens are police officers so public safety is our primary function. Number two, is poaching: deer come in and they eat the marijuana, bears come in and they harass the growers themselves by trying to get their food, so many of those animals are killed. Pollution is unbelievable. We have documented up to one pound of fertilizer use per six plants for the growing season. So if you multiply that out times a 30,000 plant grow, you’re talking about a lot of fertilizer use. Pesticides, plant hormones, all these different things that are all keeping these plants thriving are also polluting our creeks and killing our wildlife.
John Heil: Do you think the public’s aware of this problem?
Patrick Foy: I think the public is aware of the problem only to some extent and I think a lot of people don’t see marijuana as a serious concern as other drugs. They don’t think there’s as much violence associated with marijuana as other drugs because they don’t hear about it as often. And the other thing is people think marijuana is some kind of a natural drug that is, isn’t as harmful as other drugs. Well if you look at the amount of pesticides that are applied to these plants to keep the bugs away, that stuff isn’t rinsed off during the cultivation and during the processing phase of the operation. It gets packaged right up and shipped out to the street. So you’re not just smoking marijuana, you’re smoking some pretty hardcore pesticides, many of them smuggled from Mexico.
John Heil: They use rat poisons too don’t they, I mean typically?
Patrick Foy: Absolutely. What happens is the rodents will come in and they will chew on the irrigation pipelines and poke holes in them and as a result the growers will put out rat poison. The rodents will eat that poison, they will go off and other scavengers will then eat the rodents and become sick themselves.
John Heil: Yeah and I understand also that when using the piping to water their source, they’re also impacting the fish and the water environment as well. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Patrick Foy: One of the ways wardens find these marijuana grows is by finding fish kills. That’s one of the things that we investigate. So a warden will go up, start an investigation to find out why the fish died, they walk up stream, it might be a mile and next thing you know they’ll run into a marijuana garden. You’ve got these copious quantities of pesticides and fertilizers that are applied on the forest floor and then they get washed into the creek and it kills a mile or three miles of the creek. It’s really, it’spretty amazing how much damage is done.
John Heil: Is this kind of an ecological disaster?
Patrick Foy: This is a very much an ecological disaster from all these different aspects: from the poaching aspect, from the pollution, from the habitat destruction, I mean hundreds of trees are cut down. It’s a complete disruption of the natural environment and basically they clear-cut these areas and the vegetation that grows back to replace those areas cut down, even if the marijuana garden is removed, is completely different than what stood there before they went in. So it’s, it’s permanent damage that they’re causing.
John Heil: There’s also obviously danger to the public as well as the law enforcement officers that go in and try and stop this.
Patrick Foy: We’ve had many anecdotal stories of people stumbling into marijuana gardens or stumbling across the black pipe and they become curious. These black irrigation tubes are a telltale sign of a marijuana garden, but a lot of people don’t realize that so they’ll follow them out and try and figure out what it is and they’ll stumble into a grower who might be pointing a gun at them. That happens fairly frequently. So our advice to people who might stumble upon these gardens is, back out immediately, if you can grab a landmark, grab a GPS coordinate, that’s very, very helpful, but back out immediately and call 911 as soon as you get to a cell site. Never engage the growers. These are extremely dangerous people that are willing to kill to protect their profit.
John Heil: Well thanks a lot. Appreciate it very much.
Patrick Foy: All right, thanks for the time.
John Heil: Our next guest is Forest Service Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Pacific Southwest Region, Russ Arthur, a 24-year law enforcement veteran. Russ, why are we seeing more marijuana being grown on the National Forests as opposed to being smuggled across the border from Mexico?
Russ Arthur: Based on conversations and intelligence from other agencies, in this day and time, with our heightened border security, it’s much easier for smuggling humans into this country than it is marijuana or any other drug. Also, public lands is a target because it’s a faceless victim, and more importantly, there’s not going to be any land seizure when it comes to being caught growing marijuana on public land.
John Heil: So, tell me about your experiences so far here in California. I mean, what kind of a problem do we have and should the public be concerned about it?
Russ Arthur: You do have a tremendous problem with your marijuana grows. My knowledge of these large grows started seven years ago in the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia where we surfaced large grow areas. And we began networking because every one of our grow sites, from the southeast, had direct ties to California.
John Heil: Actually, I was reading a news release from I believe it was from the Department of Justice about one of the weapons that was discovered at one of these sites, a sawed-off shotgun.
Russ Arthur: Well obviously there’s various types of weapons that we find in these sites and when you start finding weapons that were only designed for one specific purpose, that specific purpose being to shoot a human, we’ve got a concern. A sawed-off shotgun is not used for rodent control, it’s not used for hunting, it’s used for one thing only. On the south part of this region this year, there was an interdiction of a series of firearms that we seized that was high-powered "sniper" weapons with hundreds of rounds that we recovered that were hand-loaded for long distance sniper firing. And that was seized from a group of growers, which fits right in with our intelligence that we’ve been gathering that they are setting up counter-surveillance on our operations.
John Heil: Russ, can you tell me the difference between the marijuana cultivation say twenty years ago versus today?
Russ Arthur: It is a very distinct difference. Twenty years ago when we dealt with marijuana we dealt with very complacent individuals. Most of them were American citizens, they were local individuals, there was a lot of personal use grown on National Forest twenty years ago. These grows have turned more toward major illegal operations to produce massive amounts of money. There’s a lot more money in this, the THC content of the marijuana is a lot more potent than it was then, and they’re a lot more dangers.
John Heil: Russ, I understand these growers have multiple plantations?
Russ Arthur: Most definitely; they understand that law enforcement can only get to so many. They put them in remote areas, they scatter them out, they understand that during the summer the Forest Service is involved in other management activities such as wildfire. So they understand that if they saturate this, it’s going to be hard. It’s really a tough situation, especially now in California where you have state and local agencies that are struggling for their budgets. So we’re having a hard time finding it all.
John Heil: When you share this with other people outside say the media and other folks, are they at all surprised by what they’re finding out here?
Russ Arthur: They’re very surprised, and it becomes apparent that you cannot realize the magnitude of one of these sites unless you’re standing there. For an example, one site alone in Fresno County that we were at this year it produced 3,000 pounds of trash, 10,000 feet of irrigation pipe, and over 300 pounds of fertilizer and other various pesticides and herbicides. And that is in one site out of over 70 that we have in that county. Until you walk into one of these sites, it’s hard to believe. If you could imagine six or eight people that camped in your backyard you know for four months, what kind of trash would be left behind, but that’s, that’s basically what you’ve got up and down all the National Forests in this region. And you can tell people all you want but until they’re standing there looking at it and seeing the amount of work that goes into, not only bringing that type of material in there, but to physically manipulate the ground to the degree that it takes to grow this product, it’s amazing.
John Heil: Who’s getting wealthy on this, Russ?
Russ Arthur: The workers that we’re catching, they’re not getting wealthy, to our standards. But to their standards they are. I have interviewed several for example, that said if they were successful with a crop, they would have $10,000 American dollars to go back home with, which as we all know is a lot of money to take back to Mexico. However, there’s a lot higher level of organization that’s making the large money. As an agency, we’re working as hard as we can with our brother agencies, DEA, ATF, FBI, to try to enhance the chances of climbing that ladder if you will of this organizational chart.
John Heil: Thank you for sharing this information with us Russ. Joining us now is Forest Service Supervisory Special Agent, Michael Gaston. Mike, can you tell me a little bit about what the general public should know about this problem?
Michael Gaston: I think the general public probably has a misconception. They are thinking of the average US citizen growing marijuana in their backyard and that is definitely not the problems that we’re facing on the US Forest Service lands. What we have is drug trafficking organizations. They’re mainly, at this point in time, from Mexico here in the United States illegally, and they go out and live on the forest for about six months out of the year. You know, it’s not just the marijuana that we’re concerned with as the Forest Service; we are just as concerned with the destruction of our public lands and the degradation of our water systems and just the trash that’s there, the illegal chemicals that are put out there. And I think if the general public were made aware or they could actually see the destruction and what is happening to our public lands, they would be outraged.
John Heil: I understand that many of the growers are armed.
Michael Gaston: I would say almost every garden we go to, we’re going to find some type of weapon. Whether it be a .22 rifle or a SKS or an AK, all types of pistols, most of these people are armed. Now I’m not saying that they’re going to go after law enforcement. Some of them say they just have the weapons to protect it from what we call ‘marijuana pirates’ or ‘pot pirates’. They’re afraid somebody else is going to come steal their product. They also say that they have them just to hunt so they can eat, but they don’t have a hunting license and they’re hunting illegally so that’s not a good excuse in my opinion. So these people should be considered armed and dangerous.
John Heil: What is your policy regarding the use of force while making arrests?
Michael Gaston: Well our strategy is to never have to fire or shoot anyone. We have a strict firearms policy; we do not ever go in with the intent of shooting someone. We usually go in very early in the morning or late at night; we try to catch them when they’re not expecting it. You know, we do not want to have a gun battle out in the middle of the forest.
John Heil: Thank you, Michael. With us now is Tommy LaNier, the Director of the National Marijuana Initiative which is funded through the White House Drug Policy Office for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program. Tommy, how are we doing catching the people at the higher levels of these organizations?
Tommy LaNier: Well actually we’re doing a pretty good job. Since 2004 we’ve dismantled over fifty major trafficking organizations. So we’ve had a huge impact through the initiative targeting major traffickers. 70% of the marijuana cultivated in the United States comes out of California. About 80% in that is grown on public lands and the majority of that is on National Forest Service lands. So I know and you know that the Forest Service doesn’t have the resources to be involved in all these major investigations. They’ve got a lot of other work to do such as timber theft, such as general law enforcement on public lands. So although as a significant amount of work is done on drug investigations, you guys still have to take care of the other impacts that affect those National Forest system lands.
John Heil: Can you tell our audience a little bit about why they should be concerned about this problem?
Tommy LaNier: A lot of people don’t understand or don’t know that this even exists and I think it’s one of the things that we need to improve on significantly. We need to really start looking at the matter of bringing in the public much more. So we need to bring in the civic groups, we need to bring in the prevention coalitions, we need to bring in the faith based, we need to bring in the treatment people, the Sierra Club, environmental individuals; we need to bring in as many people, to get them on our side to go to congress and say hey, this is enough. Those are pristine lands that were set aside for the use of the public, not for the production of marijuana.
John Heil: Well thanks very much for being here and taking the time to talk to us here today.
Tommy LaNier: You’re welcome very much. Thank you.
John Heil: I’m here now with Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the Office for National Drug Control Policy, sometimes known as the National Drug Czar. Thanks for joining us sir. What do you want people to know about the use of public lands for the growth of marijuana?
Gil Kerlikowske: I think the environmental damage is of great concern and it’s often not widely reported. What’s more often reported is the amount of marijuana, any arrests and whether or not the people are involved in violence and of course there have been some of those acts. But what seems to have been missing from the regular media reporting on the whole issue is how much damage is occurring to really pristine land.
John Heil: Can you tell me about the collaborative effort among different agencies to combat the problems on these sites?
Gil Kerlikowske: Well I think that everyone that listens to this could see what I saw, which was not only the damage but more importantly the cooperation and the work that everyone put into this. The Forest Service, the National Guard, local, state, county law enforcement to bring the land back and to take out the trash, to take out the dangerous chemicals that have been left, I think they would be quite impressed with the use of their tax dollar.
John Heil: Is this something we can eliminate in the future?
Gil Kerlikowske: Well I think we’re in a pretty difficult position to eliminate it all together, given the tens of thousands of miles of public land, but I think that with this kind of cooperation and the efforts that I saw all day today makes a huge difference.
John Heil: Thank you sir, for taking the time to speak with us. Our final guest today is Shane Krogan, the Founding/Executive Director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew. Shane, tell me about your organization and how it’s involved with the Marijuana eradication program?
Shane Krogen: Five years ago law enforcement invited us to take a look at this particular problem. Currently now it’s about 60% of our volunteer effort. It’s a select group of volunteers that are very dedicated towards what they see out there and how it emotionally moves them so we do about sixty days a year worth of cleanup.
John Heil: What types of folks are volunteering for you?
Shane Krogen: A lot of retirees, we actually have a couple of college students on this event, there’s some retired law enforcement personnel from different agencies; it’s a very large cross section. Once you get an opportunity to go on one of maybe our smaller trips, one of two things is going to happen: either you’re going to say this is not for you, or it touches your heart and you really want to get involved with this.
John Heil: Is this satisfying work?
Shane Krogen: Oh, everybody loves it. I mean that’s why we’re out here in hundred plus heat because we really want to see the fertilizers and these rodenticides get out of there. I mean we’ve seen enough animals, dead animals and stuff. We know that they’re doing things out here that they shouldn’t be doing. Last week I think one of our crews bumped into some of the hooves from a deer. We found a couple of turtle shells. We found four or five skunks that they had killed and skinned, several rattlesnakes and stuff of that nature. But the most damaging thing that we find are the pesticides or the rodenticieds, the fertilizers, and last week I think there was I think 5-600 pounds of fertilizer that these people carried to that location. I have no idea how these people are getting that amount of quantity of product in that location, but we routinely find that stuff in these sites.
John Heil: Anything else you would like to add?
Shane Krogen: I think it’s really important not only for Forest Service personnel but the general public to get out here and to get more educated as to what the problem is. It’s not about legalization of marijuana. It really is about the damage to our natural resources. So the more we educate ourselves, the more we’re going to be able to respond to it in the proper manner.
John Heil: So if someone was interested in volunteering, what would they need to do?
Shane Krogen: Just go to our website, www.trailcrew.org and take a look at our schedule or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get in touch with you by phone and talk with you a little bit about what you’d like to do in the way of volunteering and then pick an event for you.
John Heil: Well thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to us today and wish you the best of luck as you try to work through some of these sites.
Shane Krogen: Thank you very much and again I hope people will get involved and contact their law enforcement agency with the Forest Service and try and get out there and do something about it.
John Heil: Thanks again, Shane.
Shane Krogen: Great.
John Heil: That website address again is: www.trailcrew.org or you can email Shane directly at: email@example.com for more information. I want to thank Shane and all our guests on this episode of Forest Focus. Marijuana cultivation on National Forest Service lands is a problem with serious consequences to our health and safety as well as the health of our public lands. Education is part of the solution, and we appreciate you taking the time to learn more about this issue. To receive future episodes of Forest Focus, please subscribe to our RSS feed. I’m John Heil and thank you for listening.
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