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California Guard Helps to Save Forests From Marijuana Growers

By Air Force Tech. Sgt. David J. Loeffler
Special to American Forces Press Service

SACRAMENTO, Calif., Aug. 31, 2009 – The California National Guard is part of a 17-agency endeavor to protect the state’s forests from destructive marijuana growers.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
California National Guardsmen involved in Operation Save Our Sierra turned up more than 30 miles of illegally placed irrigation pipe, 17,000 pounds of garbage and 4,050 pounds of fertilizer, including some that are toxic and illegal in the United States, as well as drugs and weapons, Fresno County, Calif., July 2009. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. David J. Loeffler
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

“The environmental impacts of the [marijuana] gardens include complete removal of vegetation, toxic materials which poison and contaminate California’s watersheds, and the death of wildlife,” said Special Agent Russ Arthur of the U.S. Forest Service. “Many of these sites will never go back to their original state.”

Operation Save Our Sierra, or S.O.S., is the battle plan. It involves more than 300 personnel from 17 local, state and federal agencies, including the California National Guard, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service.

In eastern Fresno County in July, California National Guard counterdrug task force members entered a marijuana garden after a challenging hike through rough terrain framed by poison oak and thorny brush. Large patches of marijuana were woven into the natural landscape in an attempt to conceal it from helicopter surveillance.

The marijuana looked strangely out of place in the once-pristine forest. Its color, a lighter shade of green than the native flora, stood out against the surrounding vegetation. The patches of marijuana appeared healthy, lush and manicured, while the surrounding plant life seemed languid in the 106-degree heat, struggling to survive.

The marijuana growers had clear-cut many of the native plants to make room for the illegal crop. Large piles of manzanita had been hacked down and stacked near the gardens, a clear indicator that often gives away the location of a marijuana garden. The air was thick and redolent with the sticky sweet smell of ripe marijuana.

Dangling from 100-foot lines attached to hovering helicopters, two-man teams dropped into the garden. In seconds, the teams detached themselves and started cutting down the marijuana with machetes, acting in unison with the precision of a machine making its collective way down the hillside. The marijuana, once hacked and stacked, was loaded into a large net and lifted by helicopter to an alternate location to be destroyed.

“By coordinating investigations and sharing intelligence and information, federal, state and local agencies are reclaiming national treasures from these criminal organizations,” said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, who toured the marijuana gardens with the Guard’s counterdrug task force in July.

The patchwork of illegal growth in Fresno County was connected by intricately placed watering systems that stole water from local streams, rivers and aqueducts — water that should have nurtured native plants and animals.

Fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides — many of which are banned in the United States because of their toxic ingredients —also had been abandoned in the forest, where they could leech into the ground, resulting in toxic levels of chemicals in the soil, streams and rivers.

Streams and rivers can become so polluted with toxic chemicals that the water becomes devoid of oxygen, resulting in the deaths of organisms that live in the bodies of water. Algae blooms become rampant, water becomes stagnant and forest animals are forced to search elsewhere for water.

“I’m absolutely appalled at the damage in the gardens,” said Army Brig. Gen. Kevin G. Ellsworth, Joint Staff director of the California National Guard. “I’m proud of our team. It’s an essential part of the war on drugs.”

Operation S.O.S. removed more than 30 miles of irrigation pipe, 17,000 pounds of garbage and 4,050 pounds of fertilizer from state and national forests in July. Nonetheless, it will be years before the sites are returned to their natural states, and the cost of restoration can exceed $10,000 per acre.

The operation also removed more than 400,000 marijuana plants valued at more than $1.1 billion, seized 32 weapons and made 88 arrests.

The growers of these gardens are not stereotypical peace-loving hippies who grow marijuana for medicinal purposes, officials said. A common theme of the operation is that the mission is not about medical marijuana.

Instead the growers, Drug Enforcement Administration officials, are mostly illegal immigrants smuggled into the United States from Mexico specifically to raise marijuana in the forests. Many growers spend the entire growing season, from April through October, in the gardens. They often are armed, and have been known to set up booby traps to protect the gardens. Recently, hikers, campers and hunters have stumbled upon illegal gardens and been threatened and even shot at by the growers, officials said.

In addition to supplying manpower to remove the marijuana gardens, the Guard’s counterdrug task force has provided hundreds of hours of aerial support, intelligence-gathering, criminal analysis and photo interpretation for Operation S.O.S.

(Air Force Tech. Sgt. David J. Loeffler serves in the California National Guard public affairs office.)

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