Empty turtle shells, decaying skunk carcasses and a set of deer antlers lay strewn about an empty campsite in California's Sierra National Forest.
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-jurisdictional 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 investigation.
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 restoration.
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 million.
"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 Good.
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 desert canyon.
"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 lush woodlands.
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 ranger tours.
"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," Sundergill said.
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 lands network.
"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 distribution."
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