FRESNO — For the past couple of years, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors has banged the drum in Washington, D.C., trying to bring attention to the problem of marijuana being grown in the Sequoia National Forest and other public lands in the Sierra Nevada.
Apparently, it got somebody’s attention. On Thursday, Mark Rey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, announced a multipart plan intended to push illegal marijuana growers — whom officials say are largely tied to Mexican drug cartels — off of the public lands and put the people financing them behind bars.
The plan calls for the following:
- A joint plan to be announced next month by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to work on destroying the marijuana gardens.
- More focus on finding and arresting the cartel leaders behind the gardens, not just destroying the plants.
- Closer work with local law enforcement agencies, possibly more formal alliances.
- A new program to clean up large amounts of garbage and dangerous chemicals — including herbicides, pesticides and rodent poisons — left behind by workers at marijuana gardens after they are raided or abandoned.
Officials say the chemicals alone soak into the soil and contaminate water systems. Officals did not comment that after arrest there is no opportunity for the arrested to go back to clean up the mess the feds made.
- Hiring more forest service law enforcement officers. More than half of them will be stationed in California.
The added officers will work primarily on finding marijuana gardens and conducting investigations to try to find the leaders of the drug operations behind them. The forest service has 75 officers in this state.
Rey said seven of the additional officers will be assigned to the national forests in Tulare and Fresno counties, part of a $10 million appropriation by Congress in May.
He said his department is working to get $15 million more starting in October to continue paying for the new hires and possibly allowing for more.
Officials said the pot gardens first became a large-scale problem in California about a decade ago.
Not only are more gardens being found in the state in recent years, but they are spreading to national forest land in Oregon, Washington and Idaho as well as the southeastern states, including Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee.
“But California is still 80 percent of the issue,” Rey said. He said marijuana growing operations have been found in every national forest in the state.
Finding the gardens is a long process, usually done from the air, according to Capt. Kevin Mayer, who oversees law enforcement for the Sequoia and Sierra national forests in Tulare and Fresno counties.
When the raids occur, people tending the gardens –usually undocumented immigrants — scatter into the woods and are hard to find, he said, adding that when they are found and arrested, they usually know little about the people who hired them.
Forest service officials said pot growers have fired guns at law enforcement officers raiding their camps and at helicopters overhead.
Ron Pugh, special agent in charge for the service’s southwest region, said Thursday that the two most important parts of the forest service plan are to continue raiding the gardens — which the cartels locate in the forests because they are isolated and have access to water — and then to “go for the throat” by working with the DEA and other agencies to track down the cartel leaders.
During a press conference Thursday at an Army National Guard hanger at the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport, Rey described the illegal gardens as “the most significant forest service law enforcement priority we have today.”
Rey was flanked by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida, both of whom have lobbied for more support to combat the marijuana garden problem.
Ishida said the forest service’s plan was a good start but that other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the U.S. Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security, need to get involved, too.
For his part, Nunes said he’s going to continue pushing in Washington to make sure that the funding remains in place to carry out the forest service’s plans.
“But so far, I think we’re in the right direction,” he said.
Source: Visalia Times-Delta, The (CA)Source: Visalia Times-Delta, The (CA)