Pubdate: Fri, 28 Dec 2012
Source: USA Today (US)
Copyright: 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Author: Judy Keen
Page: 1A


National Landmarks Face 'A Growing Problem- Literally'

Mexican drug traffickers are using prime new territory for their 
expanding marijuana-growing operations: America's national forests.

"It's a growing problem - literally," says Wisconsin Attorney General 
J.B. Van Hollen. "They're finding that it's easier and easier ... to 
grow within this country."

Though drug trafficking was first detected on federal lands in the 
mid-1990s, the activity has since spread to 20 states and 67 national 
forests. Traffickers are planting illicit crops on public land, 
destroying and defiling pristine wilderness while creating risks for 
hunters and other parkgoers.

A raid in August in Wisconsin's Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest 
resulted in the seizure of more than 8,000 marijuana plants and seven 
arrests, at least six tied to drug plagued Mexico.

Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of 
California, which has been dealing with the problem for years, says 
it makes sense to drug traffickers "to move marijuana cultivation ... 
closer to your point of sale."

In August, Operation Mountain Sweep targeted marijuana crops on 
public lands in seven Western states, including California. About 
578,000 plants worth more than $1 billion were eradicated, Wagner 
says. "The vast majority" of those arrested were "illegal aliens from 
Mexico or people here of Mexican extraction."

The activity comes as a survey last week shows a robust market for 
marijuana in the USA among young people: More teens smoke marijuana 
monthly than cigarettes.

The relaxation of marijuana laws - some states allow medical use, and 
Washington and Colorado voters legalized possession of small amounts 
last month - "certainly doesn't help the situation," Wagner says. "It 
creates an environment in which law enforcement gets mixed signals."

Federal agencies declined to comment on the influx of growers in U.S. 
parks. A U.S. Senate panel took up the issue last year.

"Violent transnational criminal organizations are exploiting some of 
our most pristine public and tribal lands as grow sites for 
marijuana," R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National 
Drug Control Policy, told the panel in December 2011.

Drug traffickers were first detected on Forest Service land in 
California in 1995, David Ferrell, the Forest Service's law 
enforcement and investigations director, told the panel. From 2005 to 
2010, he said, undocumented immigrants tended 1,607 cultivation sites 
in national forests.

Nationwide, 6.2 million marijuana plants found in outdoor plots were 
destroyed in 2011, more than double those eradicated in 2004, Drug 
Enforcement Administration data show.

The problem isn't confined to Western states. A site in a Michigan 
forest, where 3,000 plants were seized in 2011, was linked to Mexican 
drug groups. Eleven Mexican nationals were indicted in connection 
with the seizure in 2010 of more than 2,500 plants in rural Ohio.

Warren Eth, a Miami lawyer and expert on the trend, calls it "a huge 
problem" as growers cut down trees and pollute streams with chemicals.
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