Pubdate: Sun, 27 Feb 2000
Source: Daily Herald (IL)
Copyright: 2000 The Daily Herald Company
Author: Associated Press


SAN BERNARDINO NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. - They were spotted from the
air, as conspicuous as sharks in a school of guppies: Three plots of
land, seemingly stripped of the towering oaks and manzanitas that
shroud this patch of Southern California forest. These were not
natural formations. They were entirely man-made - and entirely illegal.

A week after the August sighting, a helicopter returned with two dozen
Forest Service agents and sheriff's detectives. They cleared a landing
pad and cut a trail into the site, coming first to a makeshift
reservoir. Six hoses, filtering water from a creek, ran in one end;
several more snaked back out the other.

Moving on, the agents reached the first clearing. They'd been

In place of the trees this forest is meant to protect stood a grove of
emerald stalks, six to 15 feet tall. They were in full bloom - robust
and ready for harvest.

On two acres of prime forest land, about a half-hour from the city of
San Bernardino and 11/2 hours from Los Angeles, these agents had
discovered the latest battleground in the war on drugs: a 23,000-plant
marijuana plantation.

As money and manpower continue to flow to the Southwest border to stop
illegal drugs coming into this country, traffickers - many employed by
drug gangs - are producing vast quantities of marijuana right here in
the United States, on land owned by the federal government.

The reasons are obvious: the land is fertile, remote and free. There's
no risk of forfeiture, plantations are difficult to trace, and growers
have land agents outmanned, outspent and outgunned.

"We spend a lot of time and energy stopping stuff from coming into
this country, but we don't really pay much attention to our own back
yard," said Dan Bauer, the Forest Service's drug program

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that
more than half of the marijuana consumed in the United States is
produced domestically. Much of that - no one knows how much for sure -
is grown on public lands, primarily the country's 155 national forests.

Pesticides used by the illegal growers poison wildlife and waterways,
although the crop's danger is not just environmental. Park visitors
run the risk of tripping booby traps or encountering armed gangs.
After stumbling upon a marijuana farm, some visitors have been run off
at gunpoint, Bauer said, adding that Forest Service agents have
sometimes exchanged gunfire with growers.

The public's perception of the drug war is a border agent pulling
bundles of narcotics from the bed of a truck, Bauer said. "They very
rarely think of the poor forest agent crawling through the bush."

In 1999, 452,330 marijuana plants were removed from national forest
land, mostly in California and Kentucky. With each plant estimated to
produce at least 2.2 pounds of pot, that's 995,126 pounds of
marijuana, with an estimated street value of about $700 million.

By comparison, the U.S. Customs Service seized 989,369 pounds of
marijuana along the Southwest border in fiscal year 1999, while the
Border Patrol confiscated just under 1.2 million pounds.

The difference: Customs has 2,900 inspectors and agents manning
Southwest ports of entry; the Border Patrol has 7,761 agents
patrolling between those ports.

There are just 588 Forest Service agents and officers assigned to 192
million acres of national forests, a decline from 625 officers in
1996. That's nearly 330,000 acres per officer, and only one of them is
dedicated full time to drug enforcement.

"We don't know how much is growing out there," Bauer said. "There are
places where we're probably getting less than 10 percent. I doubt
we're getting much over 50 percent in most of our areas."

Marijuana is the most popular illegal drug in the United States, with
about 11 million users, including 8.3 percent of teens, according to
government statistics.

One nationwide program is dedicated to the problem of U.S.-produced
marijuana - the Drug Enforcement Administration's Domestic Cannabis
Eradication and Suppression Program. It receives 1 percent of the
agency's $1.4 billion budget. In 1998 the DEA reported seizing 2.5
million U.S.-produced marijuana plants, including 232,000 indoor
plants. However, those seizures were done in coordination with state
and local agencies; the DEA doesn't track seizures done by public land

"Issues dealing with cocaine and heroin and drugs that people are
dying from tend to have a higher priority as far as enforcement goes,"
DEA spokesman Terry Parham said.

Public lands have long been targeted by marijuana producers, but
investigators trace a rise in production to the 1980s, when the
government enacted more stringent asset forfeiture laws.

Before that, "if you were caught growing pot on your own property, you
wouldn't lose your property," Bauer said. "People could grow corn rows
of marijuana literally in corn fields."

In the late '80s and early '90s, the profile of a typical grower was a
"white, hippie-type" running 100- to 1,000-plant farms, agents said.
These days the mom-and-pop operations are far outnumbered by major pot
plantations, ranging in size from 1,000 to 10,000 plants or more.

In the Southeast, old moonshining families now run marijuana farms.
But that's only part of the problem in places like Kentucky's Daniel
Boone National Forest, which consistently ranks first among national
forests in marijuana seizures.

"It's a large unorganized coalition of people that live very close to
national forest lands who are generally very close to the poverty
level and looking for any way to try to make a dollar," said Jack
Gregory, special agent in charge of the Forest Service's Southern region.

In the Southwest, Bauer said, most pot operations are run by Mexican
drug organizations that either ship crews across the border or hire
illegal immigrants to do the work.

"Just the cost of doing business up here makes it great," said Mike
Wirz, a narcotics detective with the San Bernardino County Sheriff's
Department who works with the Forest Service to investigate marijuana
groves on federal property. "They don't pay for the land, they don't
pay for the water and they pay very little for their overhead because
they're using illegal workers."

Wirz also noted that by growing their product in the United States,
Mexican cartels eliminate the extra cost and risk of paying a courier
to bring drugs into the country.

Six months after they located the 23,000-plant pot farm in the San
Bernardino Forest, Wirz and Forest Service agent Denese Stokes
returned to the site. They flew in to the same helicopter pad, hiked
down the same path their agents had carved into the land.

The marijuana was long gone, but the destruction remained.

Dried pot stalks, unusable on the market, dotted the three main
growing plots and numerous smaller plots linked by an intricate
network of trails. Where vegetation native to these lands remained,
figures of women and phrases were carved into the trees, many of which
are considered endangered.

At the four cooking and living camps on the perimeter of the grove,
trash the agents missed while cleaning up the site still littered the
earth: a tube of Colgate, a jar of Folgers, underwear, a propane tank.
Wirz pointed out a hole dug into the ground that had been filled with
trash and human waste.

"People are of the opinion, 'Well, they're just growing a plant out
there; what's the big deal?' The environmental damage that it does is
horrific," Stokes said.

Those who tend the gardens often poison animals to keep them away from
their groves. Other species are killed from pesticides that seep into
creeks, which feed into some municipal watersheds.

In all, a record 53,394 marijuana plants were found on 19 sites in the
San Bernardino Forest last year, Stokes said. The 23,000-plant grove
was the largest; Stokes estimates it was 3 years old but had gone
undetected until that day last August.

She also believes as many as eight people operated the farm, though
none was arrested. They escaped amid the maze of trails they had cut
into the forest.

"They'll be back again somewhere," Stokes said. "They won't stop;
there's too much money in it."
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