Pot 'Plantations' on the Rise on Public Forest Lands
Marijuana growers, many believed to be affiliated with Mexican drug cartels, are aggressively expanding their illegal farming operations in the U.S., clearing land to plant pot in dozens of national forests from coast to coast.
Illicit cannabis farms on public land first sprang up in California more than a decade ago and remain a serious problem in that state. But in the past two years, the U.S. Forest Service has documented a rapid expansion of the practice, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Authorities have discovered pot farms in 61 national forests across 16 states this year, up from 49 forests in 10 states last year. New territories include public land in Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan, Alabama and Virginia.
"They're moving across the country," said David Ferrell, director of law enforcement for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service.
With the expansion comes an increased risk to campers and hikers — a particular concern this Labor Day weekend, as families converge on public land just as many cannabis crops are ready for harvest.
The propane tanks, stoves and trash left behind by pot farmers pose fire risks; such a camp is believed to have sparked a fire last month that burned 88,000 acres in California's Los Padres National Forest. And many pot patches are watched over by armed guards or booby-trapped. Some are remote, but others are near popular tourist sites, such as a pot farm discovered late last month in California's Sequoia National Park, a half-mile from a cave famed for its crystal formations.
Operators of RV parks and campgrounds near public land have taken to warning vacationers to be cautious in the woods. Stockpiled food or trash of any type might be an indication of a prolonged campout linked to a pot farm, officials said. They advise hikers who spot such signs to retreat and call authorities.
The pot farms are not fly-by-night operations. Growers cut down trees and terrace canyons to create plantations big enough for tens of thousands of plants. They apply pesticides and herbicides — some not approved for U.S. use. They dam or divert streams and hook together miles of PVC piping to build irrigation systems, some rigged to sophisticated timers.
Each camp is typically tended around the clock by guards who may be equipped with assault rifles, night-vision goggles, walkie-talkies and radios to monitor law-enforcement chatter.
"It seems like every year, they step it up a notch," said Michelle Gregory, a special agent with the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.