Pubdate: Fri, 30 Nov 2007
Source: Union Democrat, The (Sonora, CA)
Copyright: 2007 Western Communications, Inc
Author: Alisha Wyman
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)
Bookmark: (Environmental Issues)


Irrigation hoses snaked along tunnels through white thorn bushes.

Rusted cans littered the ground around a weathered tent, while 
Styrofoam cups holding what once were marijuana seedlings lined a 
makeshift nursery.

After law enforcement officials root out marijuana growers and 
destroy the gardens, this is what's left behind. It's up to agencies 
like the U.S. Forest Service to clean up the mess.

This week, Stanislaus National Forest officials recruited the help of 
the California National Guard's Counter Drug Unit and their own 
firefighters to gather the trash in the camps and haul it out by helicopter.

 From Monday through Thursday, a Pave Hawk -- a Black Hawk helicopter 
with a few additions -- lifted almost 5,000 pounds of trash out of 
nine gardens on the Groveland Ranger District, estimated Brian 
Finnerty, a chopper pilot with the Air National Guard's Moffett 
Federal Airfield north of Mountain View.

The cleanups make it harder for growers to return, said Jay Power, 
patrol captain for the Stanislaus National Forest.

"If we get rid of the pipes and all the infrastructure, it's less 
likely they'll come back next year," he said.

The gardens cause safety concerns for forest rangers and the public 
who may stumble on them. They fuel a larger drug trade that includes 
methamphetamine Superlabs. And the camps where growers live for 
months during the growing season can mar the forest floor.

The gardens have lasting impacts after the season is over, however, 
with trash detracting from the forest's beauty and chemicals tainting 
its water.

The environmental impact of gardens depends on their size and 
proximity to water, Power said.

There's a local effect from fertilizers, detergents and garbage left 
on hillsides.

Gardens that lie near creeks can do more far-reaching damage, since 
chemicals can flow downstream.

The longer the grows have been here, larger the cleanup required.

"I've got some that have been here for 10 years, and the whole 
hillside is covered with garbage," Power said.

Thursday morning, the teams headed to a garden near the Lost Claim 
Campground, just northeast of Buck Meadows off of Highway 120. 
Officials eradicated the garden in 2006, but military teams weren't 
available to help with garden cleanup until now, Power said.

The tunnels of bushes lay in neat rows along a hillside, with the 
branches growers had cut out piled up along the paths.

Several Southern California sergeants from the Army National Guard's 
Team Shield passed bundles of black hoses through the maze of bushes. 
They piled them onto a net sprawled in an open spot they had cleared.

Others grabbed armfuls of clothing, garbage and other items, tossing 
them into the heap.

After the area was clear, the ground crews radioed to the helicopter, 
which appeared minutes later.

Finnerty positioned the helicopter above the net so that other team 
members could lower a hook down to the ground. The bird's long 
propellers whipped up a tornado of dust, leaves and twigs -- an 
effect officials refer to as "rotorwash."

Once ground crews secured the net onto the cable, the helicopter 
lifted it away as it swung below.

The cleanup efforts take hours of organization and manpower, Power 
said. The cost can run into thousands of dollars a day.

There is no funding designated for marijuana garden cleanup like 
there is for eradication, he said. Power requests help from the 
National Guard, and crews visit as they are free.

"It's catch as you catch can," he said.

During the summer, the National Guard offers help with marijuana 
eradication throughout the state.

It reserves cleanup missions like this week's for the off season -- 
from October to December and sometimes in March, said Steven Burt, a 
flight engineer with the Air National Guard.

Power keeps a spread sheet of the gardens that law enforcement 
officials destroy in the forest each year. This year, the forest 
pulled 88,757 plants in Mariposa and Tuolumne counties from gardens 
that are usually suspected to be the progeny of Mexican drug 
trafficking organizations.

Over the last couple weeks, Power compiled a list of those gardens in 
preparation for this week's cleanup.

Marijuana eradication is only part of Power's job. He must balance it 
with other responsibilities such monitoring camping permits, 
littering, woodcutting and OHV use among the forest's roughly 2.5 
million yearly visitors.

Forest officials recently created a new position that will be 
dedicated to drug enforcement. This will allow the forest to 
concentrate more on finding the people who plant the gardens and 
stopping them from coming back, Power said.

"It's like a conveyor belt to keep pulling the plants, because they 
just keep planting them," he said.

The key to stopping the operations is to find those who do it, he said.

"At some level, it's just like they've insidiously taken over the 
national forest," Power said. "It'd be nice to take it back again."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom