The vast, unpatrolled public lands

  • Greg Hanscom


It was supposed to be "the fishing trip of a lifetime." Three brothers in their 50s and their teenaged sons hauled their rods and tackle to the Sierra National Forest last summer, in search of a quiet spot where they could spend a few days pulling trout from a mountain stream. It didn’t turn out that way.

Instead, about an hour into their trip, the group ran into a posse of men in camouflage fatigues, toting rifles. They had stumbled into a marijuana garden. The growers retreated into the brush and the fishermen hightailed it back to their vehicle, glancing fearfully over their shoulders the whole way.

As Adam Burke writes in this issue’s cover story, this kind of encounter is becoming more commonplace, as dope growers spread pot gardens across the West’s out-of-the-way public lands. Strip away the forest canopy, and these lands would look a lot like an oil patch, with isolated marijuana plots dotting the landscape, linked by a spiderweb of foot trails and old logging roads.

The story reveals one of the great conservation catch-22s: By setting aside lands for fish, wildlife and solitude, we’ve also created the perfect niche for criminal activity. The Mexican drug lords who run these gardens — and the hippies and hillbillies who pioneered the practice — are simply making use of the wildness, the remoteness, that we’ve carved out in our national forests and parks.

And it’s not just the drug runners who have discovered these lands. Ann Melle, assistant director of law enforcement for the U.S. Forest Service, says that as nearby urban areas expand, "all the crimes that you find in the city" are turning up on the public domain, including "murders, rapes, assaults, drug dealing, methamphetamine trafficking, dumping of bodies, dumping of stolen vehicles …" This is to say nothing of off-road vehicle trespass in wilderness areas, timber theft, and illegal road- and trail-building.

Meanwhile, the land-management agencies have watched their budgets bleed out. The Forest Service oversees 192 million acres nationwide. To keep the peace, the agency has 650 patrol officers and agents. "You do the math," says Melle. OK: that comes to roughly 300,000 acres per person. Good luck.

What are our options? Behind Door Number One, we find a heavily funded military-style anti-drug campaign, with even more commandos creeping through the woods and helicopters sweeping overhead. Behind Door Number Two, marijuana growing legally in a million backyard gardens, completely eliminating pot-growing on the public lands. The first scenario is undesirable, the second unlikely.

There’s another option: We could put people back on the ground on the public lands. These days, the priority within the agencies is paperwork, processing oil and gas permits, and responding to well-deserved lawsuits from environmental groups. The land-management agencies are staffed by desk drones. We need to get back to the days of range riders and backcountry rangers, when people really knew the land.

And it’s not just agency staffers who should get out onto the ground more often. There’s enough restoration work out there to employ an army of workers. Imagine a new Civilian Conservation Corps, thinning forests and rebuilding streambanks. This army could also act as a neighborhood crime watch, providing extra sets of eyes and ears for overworked land managers.

OK, maybe that’s pie in the sky, too. But as the dope-growing bonanza shows, it’s not enough to draw lines around a place and leave it be. If we abandon our public lands, someone else will find a use for them.

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