‘They were in some of the best hunting areas I know,’ says one hunter; ‘Grave concern over the threat to public safety,’ says a WDFW official.
ROYAL CITY, Wash.–Washington outdoorsmen say illegal marijuana gardens are cropping up where they chase big game and varmints, look for morels and near trails to alpine lakes, and if trends continue, a record number of plants could be seized on those public lands this summer.
AN OFFICER BELIEVED TO BE WDFW'S SHAWN MYERS CARRIES MARIJUANA PLANTS SEIZED AT A CHELAN COUNTY, WASH., BUST IN 2008. (SGT. DOUG WARD, WDFW)
Pot is now being cultivated everywhere from the Westside’s blacktail forests to the heart of North-central Washington’s mule deer country to the moose-rich northeastern corner to the creek bottoms of the Columbia Basin where ducks and doves gather along trophy trout waters.
“They were in some of the best hunting areas I know,” says a Northeast Washington man who turned in several 100- to 200-plant grows to law enforcement officials the last two years, and who asked not to be identified.
The largest plantations, funded by Mexican drug cartels, can be ten times as big and are protected by well-armed men.
“I take extra caution this time of year when I’m out and about,” says one North-central sportsman who wouldn’t have thought twice when heading afield just seven or eight years ago. “I’m not too worried about wolves, but being from the Okanogan Valley and hearing the stories, I wouldn’t leave home without a firearm.”
Then there are environmental issues. Growers terrace mountainsides, divert streams and springs, use a range of insecticides and pesticides and leave thousands of pounds of trash behind after late summer’s harvest.
Whether legalizing marijuana would bring a halt to the danger and damage is a good question, but in the here and now, as high summer comes on and with a low snowpack last winter, even more of the highly sophisticated, labor-intensive operations could be in the Evergreen State.
“I think this year’s going to be conducive,” says Lt. Richard Wiley of the Washington State Patrol.
WHAT’S BELIEVED TO BE the first bust of 2010 – “the earliest recorded growing effort in that area yet” – was discovered accidentally April 30 on state land near Royal City.
Department of Fish & Wildlife enforcement officers were actually training how to take down grows when they came across a suspicious bootprint at the Lower Crab Creek Unit of the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area.
“You always prepare for the unknown, but did we expect to detect a grow? No, we were surprised,” says WDFW Deputy Chief Mike Cenci.
According to the USA Today, 75 to 80 percent of outdoor marijuana grows occur on public lands, “right in the middle of our patrol beats,” wrote Cenci for a 2009 International Game Warden Magazine article.
He describes the location of the Crab Creek bust as in almost “impenetrable” Russian olive groves – “You can hardly see in front of you; your field of view is like 10 feet.”
Perfect escape habitat for cagey wild rooster pheasants – several of which Cenci saw – and good for growing pot.
The crop had yet to be planted, but camp was “fully outfitted” with propane tanks, sacks of fertilizer, hand tools and a mile of irrigation line to water the 1,700 to 2,000 seed cups with five seeds apiece that officers found.
“The ingenuity and work that goes into it is incredible,” says Wiley. One Washington grow was linked to water by 4 miles of buried hose, he says.
Indeed, these are not your everyday gardens or gardeners. He says the cartels put on “big training sessions” for how to run it all.
“The trend now is a live-in grower,” adds Cenci. “You hang out with your plants.”
He says the Royal City tender somehow escaped, but left two rifles behind.
“The growers are usually armed, a risk to us, a risk to sportsmen,” Cenci says.
During a 2008 bust near San Jose, Calif., a warden was shot in both legs and a grower killed. Cenci and eight other fish and wildlife cops went into the brush heavily armed – German-made submachine guns, semi-auto handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammo.
WDFW FISH AND WILDLIFE ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS WHO ASSISTED IN THE LOWER CRAB CREEK BUST. (WDFW)
“I have a grave concern over the threat to public safety,” he says. “I generally look to California for trends, and the trend as it relates to this issue is not pretty. There have been a number of encounters with growers where the public narrowly escaped harm.”
Growers actually don’t want attention, and to limit it, food is backpacked in occasionally by a “lunchman.”
They also hunt and fish during the three to four months the marijuana needs to ripen. Birds, rabbits and fish made up part of the diet for guys at a 12,000-plant grow on Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge north of the Tri-Cities busted in 2008. Those at a Republic-area grow last year butchered a moose.
WASHINGTON AND California are the top two outdoor marijuana-growing states, according to Wiley.
Since the border was tightened after 9-11 and then as eradication efforts ramped up, the number of plants found on Washington’s national and state forests, parks, recreation and wildlife areas as well as tribal and other lands has grown from 6,500 in 2001 to 589,000 last year. In dollar terms, the confiscation of 228,000 plants in Oregon in 2009 represented a $451 million loss to the cartels, The Oregonian reported in late April.
“Our guess is we’re not finding most of them,” says Det. Steve Brown of the North-central Washington Narcotics Task Force.
The Evergreen State is the second most densely populated state in the West, but as hunters and anglers know, it also has vast amounts of remote land and tens of thousands of miles of logging roads and trails.
Thanks to the Eastside’s fruit orchards, vineyards and the Columbia Basin Project, there’s a ready supply of irrigation equipment and plenty of water to go along with hot summers. And with a little bit of pruning, the woods can be opened up to let more light in on the crop, yet still be tight enough to evade aerial detection.
“They cut rooms out inside the thickets and leave an upper story of canopy for cover from helicopters and planes,” says a Grant County hunter.
HE STUMBLES onto the abandoned sites near springs and drainages in fall while stalking deer, in winter while pursuing coyotes or looking for shed antlers in early spring.
“But after April 1, I try to avoid the brush because of them,” he says.
In spring and summer, mushroom pickers, off-trail alpine anglers, hunters scouting for deer, bear and elk and other outdoor users also stand a higher chance of coming across a plantation and its tenders.
“It’s an issue that’s a lot more concerning than a lot of people think,” says the Okanogan Valley outdoorsman, who also requested anonymity. “It’s definitely without a doubt one of the biggest concerns sportsmen have in our area anymore.”
The grows at Royal City and Saddle Mountain were at low elevation, but many are concentrated between 3,000 and 6,000 feet. They’ve been found everywhere from the high country between Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens to Sun Mountain near Winthrop to Tiger Mountain outside Seattle.
MOUNTAIN-SIDE GROW OP IN NORTHERN WASHINGTON. (NORTH-CENTRAL WASHINGTON NARCOTICS TASK FORCE)
“While some signs will serve as warnings to hunters and fishers, the risk of stumbling onto a grow unaware is high. We are trying to educate the public,” Cenci says.
Sometimes it’s obvious something illegal is going on in the area – “wrong type of cars and people in the mountains,” recalls one Wenatchee-area hunter – but the best advice if you run across a grow is to get out of the area quickly.
“We advise people don’t talk to growers, don’t walk around the grow, punch in a GPS waypoint and walk out,” Brown says.
IN FALL 2007, a deer hunter reported a site way up Goat Creek, in western Okanogan County’s Methow Valley, that had been “put to bed” for the season, Brown says, “tarps on everything for use the next year.”
Sure enough, growers came back – and so did the sheriff one August day. The raid netted 10,000 plants and one arrest, Moyses Mesas-Barajas, 43, of Michoacan, Mexico.
That hunter could have collected up to $5,000. Funded by grants from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the State Patrol operates a special tip line to report grows. The amount available fluctuates year to year, but in 2009, it paid out $65,000, Wiley says.
“We have a formula for how many plants and how many arrests are made for how much of a reward they get,” he says. “It’s fairly successful. Ten to 15 percent of the plants that we eradicate every year comes from tips.”
Online, some hunters grumble they’ve called in tips and not been paid, but others also speak of handsome rewards – $4,000 for one up the Wynoochee Valley in the mid-1990s, $5,000 for one in Eastern Washington last year.
The key to collecting is to call (800) 388-GROW rather than local police departments (the line is a clearinghouse; info will be forwarded to sheriffs and regional task forces).
You can also report anonymously, but must stay on the line and talk to a person to be eligible for the money. Information on how to report after-hours tips can be found at wsp.wa.gov/crime/hotline.htm.
ERADICATION IS ONLY part of the battle for wildland managers, though.
“Environmental damage is a huge problem for people who have to clean them up,” says Brown.
Tanks of harmful chemicals and fertilizers, as well as trash and more must be gathered and hauled out from the backcountry.
“The expense is enormous,” Brown says. “A lot are in remote areas, so it has to be helicoptered out, and that’s not cheap for a couple days.”
Forest Service crews returned to Goat Creek last year to tear down makeshift housing, fencing and a watchtower, fill in water catch basins and rehab the grounds. Over 200 pounds of fertilizer as well as chemical containers were cleaned up to prevent spillage that might harm wildlife or water quality – all in all a huge effort that took workers and resources away from other projects and cost $12,906.22.
HELICOPTERING OUT SEIZED PLANTS DURING AN AUGUST 2008 RAID ON A GROW OP IN WASHINGTON'S MULE DEER RICH UPPER METHOW VALLEY. (OKANOGAN COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE)
In trying to impart the seriousness of the issue, Cenci needles his wildlife area managers when they get bent after someone parks in the wrong spot at an access site.
“Twenty thousand-plant grows are a little more of an impact,” he says, calling for more education and money to deal with the issue.
“We do need to throw more resources at this problem,” Cenci says. “The public safety danger and environmental impacts are beginning to dawn on folks.”
In the meanwhile he vows to continue to protect state wildlife lands.
“We can’t eradicate dope, but we can try to keep it off our lands,” he says. “We’re going to be aggressive about going after them.”