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for people who care about the West

The Public Lands' Big Cash Crop

 

SHINGLETOWN, California — On a cool, late-September morning on the outskirts of this Northern California town, two men board a helicopter in a cow pasture. Each of them holds the title of "special agent," but the agencies they represent are as different from one another as any two agencies could be.

 

Dave Burns sports a goatee and duck-hunter camouflage and works for the federal Bureau of Land Management. Ed Plantaric wears a military-style buzz cut and a pair of black, cupped goggles; his tan shirt is emblazoned with the gold and black badge of California’s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement.

 

As a cluster of stunned Holsteins stares in disbelief, the helicopter lifts off and floats out of the tight, wooded valley. It sweeps over houses huddled along a black artery of highway. Here and there, humans have scraped the ground to make room for tidy vegetable gardens, miserable lawns, graveyards of dilapidated vehicles. In between is a sea of dark timber and knuckled brush, all of it scrawled with back roads the color of drying blood.

 

These are the red, iron-rich skirts of Mount Lassen. The peak looms 25 miles to the east, a dormant volcano decapitated by clouds. The southernmost mountain in the Cascades, Lassen stands within its namesake national park, surrounded by a moat of national forest.

 

But the land right beneath the helicopter holds no such distinctions. It’s a sprawling patchwork of utility easements, twice-cut commercial timber holdings and 40-acre plots that are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. These shreds of federal land are largely unused and forgotten — at least by their owners, the American public.

 

The helicopter drifts sideways and then circles lower across a south-facing slope covered with manzanita and oak. Held tightly by seatbelts, the men lean from the rear of the doorless craft, scanning a mottled canopy of green and brown.

 

"I’ve got dope," Plantaric’s voice crackles through the headsets.

 

The pilot banks, hesitates, and settles lower, as treetops thrash beneath the beating rotors.

 

A powerful smell fills the helicopter cabin — musk and mint and lemongrass and freshly mowed lawn, all mixed together with a touch of sweetness. Below, what seemed to be a solid forest canopy is suddenly full of fissures. Under the trees, bright green cannabis plants are everywhere: The entire patch of scrubby no-man’s land is a marijuana garden.

 

Ganja. Bud. Cannabis. Boo. Green Sticky. Pot. Grass. Reefer. Mary Jane. Sweet Lucy. Herb. Call it what you like, this powerful psychoactive plant has become the newest gold mine on the West’s public lands. Marijuana producers, dominated by Mexican drug rings, have spread to every viable forest, park and refuge up and down the foothills of the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada. In the past few years, gardens have been discovered on public lands as far inland as Idaho, Utah and Arizona.

 

The environmental impacts of this illegal, industrial-style agriculture are growing exponentially, as growers denude hillsides, dam creeks to irrigate their crops, spread pesticides and fertilizers, and leave behind literally tons of garbage and human waste.

 

At the same time, encounters between drug traffickers and the public are on the rise. In mid-October, three groups of hunters on the Angeles National Forest stumbled into marijuana gardens — and their camouflaged and heavily armed caretakers. In one case, a hunter was held against his will for a short period. When law enforcement officers returned to the garden, they were greeted with gunfire. While officers captured one grower, three others escaped, having already harvested and removed 3,000 plants.

 

How did things get to this point? Recent news stories have offered up a tidy explanation: They say the tightened border security that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks forced Mexican drug runners to move their growing operations inside the U.S. But under examination, this theory falls apart: Law enforcement agents saw evidence of Mexican drug rings on the public lands at least as far back as the late 1980s. And they’re still moving meth and cocaine across the border, apparently undiscouraged by the tightened security.

 

The real roots of the problem are buried deeper, in the dark thickets of the drug war, where the commercial marijuana trade and federal drug policy intertwine.

 

"OK, let’s go find a (landing zone)," says Plantaric. "I think I saw a field back there that would make a good site."

 

In the garden, naked red manzanita trunks twist and coil like serpents swimming in a sea of green marijuana plants. The bushy plants are three to seven feet high, with thick budding stalks. The air is thick with the humid reek of cannabis oil.

 

The place is deserted, but it hasn’t been for long: A hose dribbles into one of the many platter-sized basins worked into the red dirt, water pooling around the base of several pot plants. Nearby, a blue jacket is crumpled at the base of a tree, most likely abandoned when the helicopter swooped overhead.

 

The garden is a glimpse of the relentless human drive that fuels the illegal drug trade. Growers have cut the lower tree branches with handsaws, clearing the snarl of understory plants to the edges, creating an open "room" with red earth below and a leafy canopy above. The slope is crisscrossed with irregular terraces that cascade down among boulders and tree trunks, each slung with a line of drip irrigation hose. At the far end of the plot, a narrow, waist-high trail tunnels into the thicket, leading to five more gardens just like this one.

 

"I will say this about Paco and Chuey," Dave Burns says, referring to the nameless Latinos who toiled here. "They aren’t lazy."

 

A former Army ranger and U.S. Customs agent, Burns has been with the BLM since the early 1990s, when he was hired to tackle an earlier wave of pot farmers on California’s North Coast, in an area known to drug warriors as the "Emerald Triangle."

 

Now, Burns sees a new wave of Mexican growers working with increasing guile and sophistication. "We saw the same progression with the freeze-dried hippies in Humboldt," Burns says. "When we first started getting these Mexican gardens, the plants were out in the open, like giant rows of corn. Now we’re seeing smaller, lower plots, short bushy plants, and hollowed-out canopies. Pretty soon, these guys will be running water timers, and coming out once a week to check on the plots."

 

Burns and his investigation team locate the campsite, or "hootch," where at least two growers lived. Nearby, they find a pit filled with trash and human waste. Bags of fertilizer and empty cans of rodent poison hint at this industry’s environmental consequences.

 

"Just last week, we were at a site where a (grower) had poached a bunch of animals," one of the agents says. "Deer meat was hanging in the trees. They’d killed a bear and kept its claws. And there were two owls impaled up on posts with their wings spread out."

 

As the investigators scout for evidence, Ed Plantaric’s eradication crew moves through the rows of carefully tended plants with a tidal force, stepping over hand tools and rolls of irrigation tubing. The crew is known as Team 2 of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting ("CAMP" for short), a state organization that helps local and federal law enforcement with a problem that is spinning out of control. Within an hour, the team cuts several thousand plants and stacks them in nets. The helicopter hoists the bundles out to a drop spot several miles away, where deputies count and bind them as evidence. Eventually, the plants will be buried or burned.

 

CAMP has cut some 214,000 plants in Shasta County this year, putting the county at the top of the marijuana seizure list. But even though a recent raid in Redding nabbed one of the managers of the drug ring responsible for this garden and at least seven others like it, the growers all escaped.

 

"These guys are like rabbits," one deputy says. "They know every nook and cranny. We’ve never been out here before. And most of them are armed. So unless we can physically grab them, they get away."

 

The men who tended this garden probably arrived in the area in mid-April. They were most likely from Michoacán in southern Mexico, smuggled across the border by the jefe

in Redding and his compatriots, and shuttled north through a series of safe houses. Morning, afternoon, evening, they worked the plots, leaving only to collect supplies dropped in burlap bags at pre-appointed times and places, hoping to survive here, undetected, until harvest time, when they’d get their paychecks.

 

On the trunk of a large conifer that sprouts like a giant beanstalk through the brush canopy, the gardeners have posted a card bearing the benevolent, green-robed image of St. Jude Thaddeus, a Roman Catholic saint. San Judas Tadeo is the patron saint of desperate times and difficult situations, and the gardeners are no doubt thinking of him right now.

 

They are most likely hidden nearby, lying still and breathing lightly, making as little noise as possible, waiting for nightfall, when they can slip away. They may be near enough to hear the men hacking through the garden they labored over for an entire summer, and see the helicopter returning to carry their hard-won crop away.

 

It’s not hard to understand why Mexican drug rings have set up their marijuana-growing empire in the foothills above California’s Central Valley. Stretching 450 miles from Redding to Bakersfield, the valley encompasses 22,000 flat square miles. It’s the modern extension of an ancient Mesopotamian equation: Sun plus seed plus water equals civilization.

 

Drive south from Redding, toward Fresno in July. Green slices of orchard, vineyard and row crop flicker past on either side, like cards shuffling through a dealer’s fingers. Concrete sluiceways and metal pipes feed an umbilical grid of black plastic tubing, nourishing a stupefying volume of vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains, cotton. Stop anywhere and you can hear the rushing hum of the agricultural empire, as foodstuff shuttles from field to supermarket on a conveyor belt of highly refined machinery and thousands of anonymous brown hands.

 

Fresno is the heart of the Central Valley. It’s the sixth-largest metropolitan area in California, and the hub of a county that leads the nation in agricultural production, with $4 billion in annual revenues. The city flows with the resources needed to grow things in large quantities and bring them to market: the land, the workers, the farming implements, the warehouses and distribution centers. This makes the city a perfect haven for marijuana producers, such as the Magañas.

 

An extended family of brothers, cousins, in-laws, and childhood friends, the Magañas had ranches in Mexico, owned dozens of homes and vehicles, and employed at least 70 workers, including drivers and managers, gardeners and day-workers who trimmed and harvested the family’s crop: marijuana grown on public lands in the mountains above the valley.

 

They planted their gardens in remote, brush-covered watersheds, sometimes hiking for miles through steep, inhospitable terrain. They chose land invisible from the roads, with good running streams and exposure to sunlight. A network of old logging roads made it easy, under the cover of darkness, to drop off workers and supplies.

 

Law enforcement estimates put the operating cost of each garden at between $10,000 and $20,000 per year. Each site had thousands of plants, worth millions of dollars. The Magañas’ upper-level financiers had created a solid business that offered incredible profit margins. Even if the majority of their gardens were raided by law enforcement, they would still strike it rich. Which is what they succeeded in doing, for close to a decade.

 

By the summer of 2000, however, a three-year multi-agency investigation was beginning to tighten the noose around the organization.

 

On July 24, Jesus Magaña, who ran the family’s drug operation in the U.S., stood in the front lobby of a Toys R Us store in northwest Fresno, looking out at the parking lot. He made a call on his cell phone, and a short time later, a green Honda pulled in. The driver got out and threw a package into the passenger’s seat of a blue Lincoln Navigator.

 

As soon as the drop was complete, a man named Alberto Vidales drove away in the Navigator. The package contained a pound of crystal methamphetamine, worth $7,500. Jesus Magaña had orchestrated the sale without even touching the drugs.

 

He spent the proceeds, however, immediately heading to a Costco store to buy large quantities of canned goods. A few days later, he bought a thousand pounds of fertilizer. The supplies were for his workers at several marijuana gardens in the area.

 

"In the middle of the growing season, cash flow gets tight," says Brent Wood, who was a special agent with the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement at the time. "These guys sell methamphetamine to keep their big-money marijuana operations going."

 

The sale, observed by law enforcement agents, would provide investigators with some of the last pieces of evidence they needed. Surveillance, confidential informants and painstaking documentation linked people, properties, vehicles, telephone numbers and transactions. Eventually, there were 40 arrests. Twelve people were indicted on federal drug conspiracy charges, including Jesus Magaña and his two top henchmen, J. Felix Figueroa and Pedro Barragan Licea, who were linked to at least 10 marijuana gardens on national forests throughout the Sierra Nevada.

 

"That case started it off for us," says Wood, who now runs the Central Valley Marijuana Investigation Team, a multi-agency group funded by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). "You’ve got to hurt the leadership of these groups. If you just take their dope away, and arrest a few mopes (workers), they’re going to set up a new operation next year."

 

Wood has helped lead two more investigations like the Magaña case. One of them seized 50,000 plants and connected upper-echelon managers to gardens spanning from near Los Angeles to the Oregon border. The other busted the leader of a drug ring that trafficked in meth and cocaine, and nabbed 40 workers in a barn near Merced, California. Wood’s team is wrapping up another investigation this fall.

 

On the wall of his Fresno office, Wood has a photo — a trophy of sorts — taken from a helicopter, of a few dozen agents standing atop an enormous pile of cut marijuana plants. The mound looks like a beached whale.

 

"When the Tulare County deputies first entered that garden, they radioed out that they had maybe a thousand plants," he says, shaking his head. "There were 73,000 plants in that garden. It took four teams and two helicopters five days to get it all out."

 

This year, the war on weed hit a frenzied peak. CAMP, California’s dope-cutting machine, added a fifth team and two helicopters to its forces, often dropping agents into remote gardens by helicopter cable and taking out tens of thousands of plants in a single day.

 

"When I started with CAMP in 1990, we were lucky to get 40,000 plants a season," says Ed Plantaric. This year, the organization hacked down some 1.1 million plants, almost doubling its previous record. Seventy-two percent of that came off public lands, including 16 national forests, BLM lands, and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.

 

Jim Parker, the senior narcotics agent who oversees CAMP, says that over 95 percent of the gardens bore the fingerprints of Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

 

"You would not believe some of the terrain where we’re finding these gardens," says Parker. "And sometimes, we have to tell the helicopter pilots to stop looking, because we don’t have the manpower to cut any more that day."

 

Law enforcement agents with federal land-management agencies, already charged with patrolling millions of acres, have become professional dope cutters. "During the summer months, if we get a call about (another law-enforcement matter), we often can’t deal with it because we’re out cutting dope," says Lana Tyler, patrol captain for Sequoia National Forest.

 

And though it’s most prevalent in California, investigations are connecting Mexican drug rings to operations in other states.

 

"It’s on the move," says Bob Hernandez, assistant special agent in charge of the Forest Service’s Southwest Region. "We’re seeing it on national forests in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah. This year, forests in Arizona suddenly had big gardens."

 

There were some startling finds: On California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest, agents discovered five gardens containing 112,000 plants — all within a five-mile radius, and all within a national recreation area, heavily used by boaters and campers. On Arizona’s Tonto National Forest in late July, officials uncovered a farm south of the Mogollon Rim that had 67,000 plants.

 

Tommy LaNier, who got his start fighting the drug war as a special agent with the U.S. Forest Service in the 1980s, understands how deeply entrenched the public-land marijuana problem is — and how difficult it is to contain. He says his early work, along with that of other law enforcement teams, helped to push growers out of Southern California, north toward the Central Valley, "where there was a far smaller law enforcement presence."

 

Today, as the head of the ONDCP’s National Marijuana Project, he is bringing an unprecedented amount of strategy and insight to the pot-growing problem on public lands. He uses federal funds to promote interagency cooperation and investigations such as those of Brent Wood’s team. And he sees progress.

 

"When I was an investigator in the early days, we’d arrest three guys on the ground and we’d be thrilled," LaNier says. "Now we’re taking out whole organizations and sharing intelligence. And we’re starting to get a sense of who’s behind all this."

 

But to critics, the battle against weed — and the broader drug war of which it is a part — is an endless series of false summits leading nowhere. They say that beyond the impressive numbers and epic busts, policy-makers have failed to come to grips with the circular nature of the drug war.

 

The basic aim of drug enforcement is to disrupt the market forces. It tries to do this in two ways: by putting a crimp on the supply of products, and by decreasing demand for those products. Bust a major dealer, and there will be fewer drugs on the street. Educate schoolchildren about the horrors of crack, or ecstasy, or weed, and put users in prison, and there will be fewer customers for the dealers.

 

That’s the theory. But according to Peter Smith, it doesn’t work. Smith is a political scientist from the University of California, San Diego, who has been writing about federal drug policy for close to two decades. He says the nation has spent 25 years and $40 billion battling drugs, but has barely touched the supply. If you adjust for inflation and increased potency, he says, the price of marijuana has barely budged.

 

Part of the problem is that there are innumerable ways to bring the weed to market, whether it’s distributed from underground hydroponics labs in California, smuggled in from British Columbia, floated into Miami, trucked across the Mexican border — or slipped out from one of a thousand gardens on the national forests. Cut off one supply line, and five more open up.

 

Even toppling the occasional kingpin or drug cartel won’t noticeably affect the supply, says Mark Kleiman, a professor at UCLA’s school of public policy. "It’s a little like saying that we can affect the amount of automobile driving by imprisoning the chairman of General Motors," Kleiman says. "General Motors can find a new chairman. And if General Motors were itself taken out, then Ford, Daimler Chrysler and Toyota will be happy to fill the gap."

 

On the demand side, the drug war has been just as ineffectual, says Smith: According to a 2004 Survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, some 14.6 million Americans are regular marijuana users, meaning they used it in the past month. At least 3.4 million use it almost daily.

 

According to Smith, Americans spend an estimated $11 billion on pot every year. At least some of that finances the expansive outdoor growing practices that are currently troubling the public lands.

 

Is there a way to stop this merry-go-round and get pot growers off the public lands? Sure, says Kris Krane, associate director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He says the environmental damage and public safety concerns of public-land pot farming would be nonexistent if marijuana were legalized.

 

"You don’t see armed guards protecting breweries or tobacco plantations," Kris Krane says. "That’s because these are legal, regulated markets."

 

But legalization brings its own set of problems. Decriminalizing marijuana might make it more available to children and teenagers, and many studies suggest that marijuana use can hamper their learning and emotional development. And besides, it’s almost impossible to imagine that Congress would ever legalize marijuana.

 

Mark Kleiman, for one, thinks the seeds of a sensible drug policy can be found in the existing practices. According to Kleiman, illegal drug markets are the "Darwinian products" of yesterday’s enforcement tactics. For example, he says, by increasing the risks of domestic production — bigger seizures, more arrests — law enforcement has driven the business out of the hands of the hippies and hillbillies who pioneered the trade. "We’ve replaced them with a tougher, more violent criminal element whose primary skill is evading the law," he says.

 

Kleiman suggests that these same operating principles can be shifted to make good policy, or, as he likes to say, policy that produces the "least bad" drug-trafficking environment.

 

By way of example, he recalls a strategy taken by the New York City Police Department, starting in the mid-1990s, to crack down on the retail drug trade. The goal was not to stamp out drug abuse in New York City, according to Kleiman; it was to drive it out of the public places, where it spread petty crime. "They said, ‘It’s intolerable that Bryant Park should be the province of drug dealers. And we’re going to take it back.’ "

 

So the NYPD set a zero-tolerance policy for open drug dealing in public places. "Dealers were no longer able to stand out on Wall Street and sell little baggies of marijuana to stock brokers when they went to work in the morning," says Kleiman. The dealers moved underground, and "the violence and disorder that usually accompany retail drug dealing was largely eliminated."

 

Kleiman suggests that this strategy is something federal, state and local law enforcement should consider with respect to the public lands.

 

"We ought to be asking ourselves, ‘Are we better off with people growing outdoors on the public lands, or indoors in hydroponic facilities, or offshore, or with consumers growing at home in their window boxes?’ " Kleiman says. "By varying the mix of enforcement activities across those production technologies, we might be able to shape the form of the market, even if we can’t do much about the volume."

 

In other words, we can’t put an end to the marijuana trade, but we can at least push growers off the public lands to places where it is less environmentally damaging and less dangerous for the public.

 

Ironically, California has more than once used this tactic successfully, wittingly or not. In the early 1980s, marijuana growers had moved into the national forests in the Emerald Triangle along the North Coast. "The Trinity Alps Wilderness Area, 110,000 acres, was just overrun with dope growers," says LaNier, head of the National Marijuana Project. "There were booby traps, Forest Service biologists were getting shot at, vehicles were being vandalized."

 

LaNier says the Forest Service dealt with the problem by making it a priority, committing resources and establishing the issue as a serious public safety concern.

 

"The presence of law enforcement was overwhelming," LaNier says. "And it worked." Anecdotal evidence suggests that the growers lost too much of their product, and that they moved indoors and underground.

 

The National Park Service was able to do a similar thing in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks this summer. Using the parks’ popularity and emotional appeal, the agency pushed the story to national newspapers and TV networks. The park got an extra $448,000 this year from Congress, earmarked specifically to deal with pot-growing. As a result, the park’s plant-seizure count is down 90 percent from last year, the first drop since pot gardens were discovered there in 2001.

 

"It’s possible that we missed the mother lode," says a special agent working with the parks. "But I think we can call it success."

 

Other public agencies, however, despite having much larger swaths of viable dope-growing habitat, make do with smaller budgets. LaNier says that the agencies have not yet made dope eradication a serious national priority.

 

And while LaNier is not the one to say it, neither has the federal drug enforcement machine. Funding for LaNier’s program, which had just $4.1 million this year to cover 717 million acres of public lands, as well as a host of other duties, is uncertain for next year. There are other streams of federal funding, from DEA and ONDCP, which go toward marijuana eradication and investigations, but there is no federal initiative officially dedicated to the problem facing the public lands.

 

A visit to ONDCP’s Web site reveals the agency’s priority: an information campaign against the evils of marijuana. The office says it has seen marijuana use among teenagers drop 18 percent in the past three years. But according to a report issued in June by Taxpayers for Common Sense, ONDCP spent $1.1 billion last year on education activities such as media campaigns and youth education programs, with no discernible change in attitudes toward marijuana.

 

And the animus of the war on weed is clearly in high-profile busts, such as the 2002 arrest of Ed Rosenthal. Rosenthal was growing marijuana for the city of Oakland, to supply patients who suffered from painful or terminal illnesses. This was allowed under a 1996 voters’ initiative, but when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state law in 2001, the feds wasted no time in asserting their authority.

 

"You have to ask, ‘Where is the threat?’ " LaNier says. "The threat is a Mexican guy carrying a gun and growing dope out there in the woods. Not a guy who’s got 25 plants in his backyard. That may be illegal, but it’s not who we need to go after."

 

John Horton, ONDCP’s associate director for state and local affairs in Washington, D.C., begs to differ. "We know that the public lands are (where) a significant percentage (of the marijuana is grown)," he says. "But what we don’t want to do is focus on public lands and have it balloon on private lands. Eradication needs to be not only on public lands, but everywhere we find it."

 

Horton says his office is funneling resources to those areas hardest hit by marijuana growing, and that a Public Lands Coordinating Committee meets every six weeks to discuss priorities. "There are always folks who say, ‘We could use more money,’ " he says. "But the administration is really, really committed to tackling the marijuana problem."

 

It’s another early morning, and CAMP’s Team 2 is driving east out of Redding. A full-faced, yellow sun nests on the horizon line, filling the windshield of Ed Plantaric’s van with blazing brilliance. Plantaric has his satellite radio tuned to the Hair Nation channel, and the cab is filled with the sound of chunking heavy metal guitar and wailing vocals.

 

Plantaric steers with one relaxed hand on the wheel, and turns down the volume briefly to work the CB radio and two cell phones. He uses the CB to get his team squared away, and to throw a few jokes out into the ether. Then he phones a couple of counties, not knowing exactly where he’s needed the next day. "If Siskiyou County gets in touch, then we’ll go there. Otherwise it’ll be Trinity County," he says.

 

It’s a juggling act Plantaric is used to. This season, his team has visited 17 of the 28 counties in his region.

 

Out the window, beneath the snowy flanks of Mount Shasta, is an ocean of farm country. A hundred and fifty years ago, waves of newcomers flooded into this region, drawn by ecstatic dreams of finding gold. But most of the gold pans turned up empty, and the state was ultimately settled by farmers, who built an empire of green.

 

Now there’s another gold rush on, rooted in the state’s fertile earth. Men are flocking to El Norte to seek their fortune in a desperate lottery that may bring them the wealth of their dreams, or land them in jail.

 

So, far the odds are still pretty good — a lot better than striking gold.

 

"If we’re getting 50 percent (of the weed that’s out there), then we’re doing really, really well," says Plantaric. "But it’s impossible to know. We don’t have the helicopters or the manpower to fly every watershed, and every ridgeline."

 

But what he does know is, wherever he goes flying, he finds it.

 

"Sometimes," he says, "you don’t even want to look down."

 

The author reports from Paonia, Colorado.