The sounds of wood chopping and low voices drifted from the Russian olive grove toward their position. Just a short distance away, a team of Fish and Wildlife Officers was hunkered down in the brush. Despite the hot Eastern Washington sun beating down on them, and the bugs biting through desert camo fatigues, they remained motionless, every one of their senses alert. They had gotten as close as they dared without spooking the men, but they had seen enough… this was no ordinary camp. The team decided to back off, hiking the three miles to the trailhead in silence. The take-down of this live-in marijuana plantation would be planned in a more secure area, and involve our law enforcement partners.
Washington State is known nationally for many things: its teeming salmon runs, delicious apples, lush forests and ruggedly beautiful coastline, among other things. What the general public may not know, however, is that it ranks second in the nation for illegal marijuana cultivation (California ranks #1). A USA TODAY clipping from 2008 captures the essence of this ongoing issue:
“Mexican drug cartels are stepping up marijuana cultivation in national parks and on other public land, endangering visitors and damaging the environment……..”
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, 75%-80% of marijuana grown outdoors is on state or federal land. Why public land? You know what they say in the real estate business: LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. In the criminal world, remote locations seemingly hidden away from the prying eyes of law enforcement and scrutiny of the general public are prime real estate for illegal activity.
Enter the Fish and Wildlife Police Officer, or "Game Warden," if you will. This preferred real estate is right in the middle of our patrol beats.
It looked like some kind of military mission, with guys in boonie hats and tactical gear converging on the staging area. A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agent went over the finer points of safely maneuvering around the helicopters. Team assignments were given and small groups began to form and conduct briefings. Lt. Wiley with the Washington State Patrol (WSP) reviewed a topographic map of the Desert Wildlife Area one last time with a WDFW Enforcement Captain to make sure the plan made sense from our perspective. Captain Chris Anderson had been part of the original recon, and after many years of patrolling this agency-owned land, he knew it like his backyard. Known as the Cannabis Eradication Response Team and working in conjunction with the DEA's Domestic Cannabis Eradication Suppression Program, this was one awesome group.
The plan was fairly basic, and designed to use limited law enforcement resources efficiently. First, a perimeter allowing for a number of vantage points would be set up to prohibit escape. Next, an entry team would be flown in, suspended by cable from a helicopter, and lowered to the ground to make any arrests and secure the camp from within. The perimeter team would round up anyone who happened to make it past the entry team, and then collapse on the site to assist in pulling marijuana plants and cleaning up the garbage. Everything, including the bad guys, would then be flown out in baskets and cargo nets. This approach allows for multiple sites to be eradicated in a single day without wearing out resources.
The plan was put into action, and the law enforcement teams descended upon the grow site. The teams noted how the camp was well hidden within the canopy of trees, with a woven grass matt constructed and hung above the tent in an attempt to prevent detection from aircraft. The kitchenette, while not the envy of Martha Stewart, was complete with a tortilla press and cook stove. Vegetation had been cleared and some trees removed. In this case though, care had been taken to integrate the 15,000 plants with the natural flora in an effort to further avoid looking out of place from the air. Creek water had been diverted to irrigate the farm with the aid of a gas pump. Empty bags of fertilizer were piled up next to a tree.
In this instance, the growers were not home… but they often are. The live-in camp approach seems to be on the increase for plantation sized operations, and poses increased risks. While we have been pretty lucky so far in Washington State, our friends in California have had some really close calls, as illustrated by this sobering news:
The Mercury News (San Jose, California)
Aug. 5, 2005 – “ ………. a state (of California) Fish and Game Warden was shot in both legs and another man was killed during an early morning raid of a large marijuana farm near Mt. Umunhum in a remote area………”
July 11, 2008 – “ …….in what was expected to be a routine pot farm eradication Thursday, state and local officers (in California) encountered three armed men, killing one and chasing two through heavily wooded canyons in the Saratoga hills……”
The number of assaults on law enforcement and increased danger to the public continues to grow, right along with the marijuana plants.
Whenever I hear someone refer to a law enforcement function as “routine,” I cringe. How many times have we heard, “….an officer was shot during a routine traffic stop” or “an officer was injured during a routine license check….”? We are all aware that, as soon as something becomes routine, we will surely get our butts handed to us. So we’re trained to not think that way. Of course, we never know exactly what may be in store for us when we make contacts, whether with a known violator or the general public. But we can try to read the signs, and be as prepared as possible. Here is one example:
Our state Fish and Wildlife Officers collaborated with US Fish and Wildlife Service Officers to conduct a joint foot patrol in the remote area of Saddle Mountain Lake, located on the 80,000 acre refuge in south Grant and Adams Counties. A large portion is closed to public access, providing the privacy and isolation that illegal farmers prefer while living off the land during cultivation. As the team of officers moved through the heavy brush situated along the lakeshore, Officer Horn spotted two men trying to catch breakfast from the bank of a lake closed to fishing. When the suspects saw their badges, they fled into the stands of Russian olive trees. The Officers established a perimeter and summoned additional help consisting of state fish and wildlife officers from Region 2 and the Grant County tactical team. They knew what they really had here, and it had absolutely nothing to do with a closed season trout violation. After several hours, one man emerged from the brush and gave himself up. Officers and Deputies continued to search the area for the second man, who was spotted several times from a plane piloted by a USFWS Special Agent, and eventually caught.
After all that fuss, it would have been a bit embarrassing to not find the real cause of concern for the officers… which they did. The home-away-from-home was found to be equipped with a hidden tent, Coleman stove, and a large supply of food and canned goods. Officers also found fishing poles, a .22 rifle, and numerous bird and rabbit carcasses. The garden area contained approximately 12,000 small, potted marijuana plants, measuring about 3” to 4” tall, that were in the process of being planted into the ground. Officers also located a buried plastic irrigation line that originated out of a canal system over a half-mile away.
Identified as illegal Mexican nationals, the two were turned over to DEA agents for prosecution. One of the men stated that they earn about $20,000 during the summer for planting, cultivating and tending to the plants for someone else. Of course they refused to identify their boss. While still on the scene, an irrigation employee who was checking the area notified Officers that he had located the body of a Hispanic male that had been dumped in the brush about a half-mile away from the grow site. We’ll probably never know for sure if this crime was connected, but it’s probably safe to say that this was not a routine marijuana grow.
The extent to which criminals will go to protect their high-value crops using firearms, booby traps, and other weapons has already been demonstrated in California and other areas with similar experiences. But what about the environmental damage? The dope growers cut down trees, dam creeks, poach fish and wildlife, and leave garbage dumps behind. The introduction of toxic and often banned chemicals (used as fertilizer and insecticide) into the environment is less obvious, but many times these chemicals are mixed in to the natural water sources, creating long-lasting environmental damage.
WDFW managed land was set aside to enhance legitimate outdoor recreation and to sustain fish, wildlife, timber and other natural resources. This increasing trend of the outdoor, live-in pot plantation on public lands is contrary to that mission. The risk to public safety, officer safety, and the environment is very real, and it is increasing along with the expansion of this activity. Right now, our Officers are preparing for yet another growing season…. Highly trained and armed with an eviction notice, they will partner with local law enforcement to do everything they can to prevent your outdoor adventure from colliding with this very real threat to your safety, and your public lands.
You can see more of our Marijuana Eradication Team in action
in our "Force of Nature" video.