FAMED for the biggest trees in the world, Sequoia National Park is now No. 1 in another flora department: marijuana growing, with more land carved up by pot growers than any other park.
Parts of Sequoia, including the Kaweah River drainage and areas off Mineral King Road, are no-go zones for visitors and park rangers during the April-to-October growing season, when drug lords cultivate pot on an agribusiness-scale fit for the Central Valley.
"It's so big that we have to focus our resources on one or two areas at a time, because otherwise it's beyond our scope," says Sequoia's lone special agent assigned to the marijuana war, who, for his own safety, can't be identified.
He and two seasonal employees face an army of growers who turn expanses of land set aside as untouched wilderness into contraband cropland. "In a national park everything is protected," notes the agent. "You're not even supposed to take a pine cone. It's beyond what should be acceptable in today's society."
So far, park visitors and the growers rarely cross paths; the pot farms are in areas with little public appeal — remote slopes at lower, hotter elevations. However, officials report five encounters between gun-wielding growers and visitors on national forest lands in California this year.
The growers poach wildlife, spill pesticides, divert water from streams and dump tons of trash. Yet enforcement lags. Rangers say they lack helicopters and manpower, and elected officials have other priorities, including homeland security and fighting drug cartels in South and Central America.
In the last year, 100,000 marijuana plants have been removed from California national parks, including 44,000 from Sequoia. Cannabis operations are even more widespread in national forests and on BLM lands, where more than 500,000 plants were yanked last year. Pot busts on public lands in California have skyrocketed from an average of a couple of hundred plants per seizure a few years ago to an average of 3,500 today.
"I've had meetings with law enforcement throughout the state, and everybody just sits there with their mouths open. Nobody can believe this has happened on the scale that it has," says William Ruzzamenti, a 30-year Drug Enforcement Administration official who heads up the Central Valley High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a program that spearheads drug investigations and has provided support to Sequoia and Kings Canyon.
Pot plantations have surged as Mexican-affiliated drug cartels adapt to increased border security since 9/11 and cash in on the rising price of high-grade weed, now more profitable than methamphetamine, according to investigators.
Oddly enough, public outcry has been remarkably muted.
Sequoia Kings Canyon spokesperson Alexandra Picavet thinks the drug debate has kept the problem from getting traction. "People get blinded by the marijuana issue…. We don't want people planting asparagus on the land, either. This is agricultural assault on a national park, no matter what they're growing."
Lawmakers say the issue is crowded out by more pressing matters. This year's federal drug-control strategy did not address pot cultivation on public land. And the Sierra Club acknowledges other priorities than drug bandits.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), whose district includes Sequoia National Park, called hearings on the marijuana incursion in 2003. He says the issue is under the radar for most lawmakers in Washington.
"They don't even know that it exists…. People don't think about it," Nunes says.
The pot growers are no longer the stereotype of hapless hippies. They are part of sophisticated criminal organizations schooled on the Colombian cartels' economy of scale, says Ruzzamenti. "They do things big. Even if you lose a little here, you'll make it up in the long run. They've taken this lesson to another level," he says.
Most of the ringleaders, say investigators, are U.S. nationals based in Southern California with connections to cartel families in MichoacÃ¡n, Mexico; field workers are well-armed Mexican laborers.
"We've found AR-15s, shotguns, rifles, knives strapped to poles, crude crossbows," says J.D. Swed, chief ranger at Sequoia.
Ruzzamenti first learned of the cannabis boom two years ago when his office, set up to combat the Central Valley's rampant meth activity, saw a plunge in the number of meth labs. Busted lab operators told him that business was down in the summer because many of the workers were planting marijuana in the forest, where they could earn up to $200 a day. Authorities were at first incredulous that the lowly weed could have eclipsed meth for profitability. Then they began uncovering giant farms, such as a 79,000-plant haul in Tulare County valued at $360 million.
The cartels dispatch their troops down isolated roads in steep terrain in February and March. Growers bushwhack a couple of miles into the woods, carrying 25-pound tanks of propane, 50-pound sacks of fertilizer, pesticides and hoes. Periodic food drops supplement poached animals. The farmers clear the understory of foliage, leaving a canopy for camouflage; they cut terraces in the slopes, run irrigation hoses from creeks and rivers for miles and carve out a sprawling camp. For every five acres of marijuana, a grower will develop 180 acres of wilderness.
When Sequoia restoration ecologist Athena Demetry heard about the "gardens," she thought, "How bad could it be? Then you see entire slopes covered with this. They'll put up tarps, have cooking areas, make tables out of branches. You walk down the trail and see more and more [camps]. You know you're just seeing the edge of the problem."
Last February Demetry got enough funding to rehabilitate pot zones for the first time. With a team from the California Conservation Corps, she restored 25 garbage pits for 50 gardens and 13 camps in an area on the east fork of the Kaweah. She found pesticides in one creek. Now growers are moving deeper into the backcountry, making it harder to get restoration crews in safely. Demetry has half the budget she had last year.
To dent the pot tide Park Service officials installed a gate at the entrance to Mineral King Road, making it harder for growers to reach favorite haunts. The park's special agent has submitted a request for 10 law enforcement agents, for 24-hour surveillance.
But what Sequoia officials say they really need are helicopters. Last year the special agent had access to a Black Hawk helicopter unit out of Riverside through the U.S. Customs and Border Protection program, but it was reassigned to the Mexican border this year. "The Black Hawk unit really worked," he says. "We discovered three major gardens with it."
The U.S. government has sent 60 helicopters and about $4 billion to Colombia since 2000 to eradicate coca farms, causing Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa) to note that "it does make you wonder why we're going all the way down there…. We may have to rethink it and beef up our attempts in the forests and national parks."
The special agent at Sequoia National Park says he needs another $200,000 annually for Operation No Grow, a five-year plan to eradicate marijuana farms in the park. Sequoia did get an additional $45,000 this year, but officials say it's not nearly enough.
Two weeks ago, Sen. Dianne Feinstein released a letter, signed by Radanovich, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) and Rep. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs), calling on National Park Service Director Fran Mainella to increase law enforcement to stem cultivation in the parks, estimate damage by growers and come up with a plan to restore affected areas.
In the meantime, with federal budgets allocated for the year, Sequoia officials prepare for another season of raids as deep in former wilderness untold numbers of growers hope for a bumper harvest.