Pubdate: Sun, 05 Mar 2000
Source: Medford Mail Tribune (OR)
Copyright: 2000 The Mail Tribune
Contact:  PO Box 1108, Medford OR 97501
Fax: (541) 776-4376
Author: Paul Fattig, of the Mail Tribune


GRANTS PASS -- The massive marijuana gardens once found in Southern
Oregon have disappeared, but that doesn't mean the illegal weed is no
longer being planted in local national forests.

"The problems have definitely not gone away," said Mark Tarantino. "If
anything, we've seen a little bit of a resurgence."

That resurgence has taken root in the form of smaller plots of
heavier-producing plants, said Tarantino, the Forest Service's top law
enforcement officer for the Rogue River, Siskiyou and Umpqua national

Gone are the plantations with thousands of pot plants once found on
local forests, he said.

"The trend here has been for growers to go to smaller sites," he said.
"Smaller plant clusters are more difficult to detect from the air. The
growers have spread their plants out to compensate for not having
large plantations."

Tarantino knows of what he speaks, having been a pot hunter for Uncle
Sam, in conjunction with his other law enforcement duties, on the
national forests since 1983.

The initial plantings begin as early as March, sometimes as late as
June, with harvest following 90 to 120 days afterward, he said.

Last year, because of unusually mild fall weather, the marijuana
growing season continued into late November, he said.

"The emphasis now is on the quality, not the quantity," he said of pot
plantations in the region. "It's sad but true that growers have
learned a lot about growing pot. Most plants are produced by clones.
The plant quality is up. These growers are very, very good at what
they do. They often bring soil and fertilizer to the sites.

"Coupled with that, we have ideal growing conditions," he added. "The
key is the value. The quality of marijuana produced in the Northwest
is very, very good."

With an average 2,000 plants seized annually in the local forests and
an average mature plant producing at least two pounds of dried dope,
which sells on the street for $3,000 to $5,000 a pound, the average
seized harvest would be worth some $12 to $20 million, according to
Forest Service estimates.

"These are plants that are manicured and cared for," Tarantino said.
"We don't get it all but it's always in the several thousand plant
range. "And those lesser numbers are yielding a tremendous value," he
added. Like pot growers in Southern California, those in Southern
Oregon cause environmental damage, often trashing the area as well as
poisoning animals to keep them away from their plantations, officials

And, like his counterparts in California, Tarantino has only a limited
staff to battle the stealthy pot growers.

He and his nine officers are spread thin throughout the forests.
However, they are backed by forest deputies contracted from sheriff's
departments in Jackson, Josephine, Coos, Curry and Douglas counties.

The agency also works closely with Bureau of Land Management

In addition, the Forest Service sometimes relies on the Oregon Army
National Guard to help in its hunt for marijuana plants scattered in
the forests.

"We use the military component as needed and available," he said,
adding, "We're always actively looking for resources in this fight."

The agency also gets help from the public, he said, noting that many
forest users often tip officials when they see what appears to be
illegal activity.

"They are our best eyes and ears," he said, although adding that the
public should never investigate a potential marijuana site because of
the potential danger.

Assistance comes periodically from Mother Nature.

"When we had the Silver Fire (in 1987), that burned up a lot of dope,"
he said of the fire that burned some 100,000 acres in the Siskiyou
forest. While the size of the plantations have changed in the local
forests, it's more difficult to accurately describe an "average"
grower, Tarantino said.

"We get all range of ages, from juveniles to people over 60 years
old," he said, although noting that some are repeat offenders. "But
there are some first-timers, too," he added.

But booby traps, sometimes found in pot gardens of the past, are now
largely unknown locally, he said.

"We haven't seen any significant booby trap activity in the last few
years," he said. "I think the issue there is that federal penalties
for booby traps are so severe. They know it's just not a wise thing
for them to do."

The illegal growers have also grown wise to the ways of law
enforcement officers.

"When we didn't have as active an aerial program to look for the
plants, I noticed that bigger sites were coming back," he said. "But
that quickly seemed to vanish, with a few exceptions, when we became
more active in the aerial program again."

Growers have become stealthier about where they put individual plants,
he said.

"They are often very well concealed from above," he said. "A lot of
them (plantations) are remote. But those that are close to a
transportation source like a road may be covered with brush. We're
seeing a tremendous variety of methods used to conceal them.

"We used to just look on a south slope by a water source," he added. "Now
we find dope at higher elevations. It's just not always consistent where
you find them like it used to be."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Derek Rea