By Laurel Morales, Fronteras Desk
For several years the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has been eradicating millions of marijuana plants in national parks and forests. And it’s still a major problem, so backpackers should be on the lookout.
Tyler Bolen is a law enforcement officer in the Coconino National Forest. There’s a high fire danger, so he writes a lot of warnings for people for things such as smoking in the woods.
Wildfires are a huge concern during the summer, but there’s another threat -- large-scale pot farms. These operations are typically guarded by several armed men. So Bolen says if he tripped over a garden hose or came upon bags of fertilizer in the middle of the forest, he’d call for backup.
"The last thing an officer would want to do is be overwhelmed with several armed people and a marijuana garden, so best to have a team of officers," Bolen said.
In northern Arizona there are only 10 officers covering three million acres of national forest. So supervisor Jon Nelson says they work with a community of county, state and federal agencies.
"There is a perception that when you go out on national forest land you’re not going to see law enforcement," Nelson said. "That’s been a long time perception. But with cell phones there’s a lot of eyes out there."
It has been a few years since a big pot farm has been spotted in northern Arizona and the DEA says there’s a reason for that. Jeffrey Scott has worked for the DEA for 17 years.
"Historically when we clamp down in one area traffickers adapt and move," Scott said. "This is a profit-making, profit-seeking enterprise for them. If we’re cutting into profits, if we’re making it difficult to work, they’ll go somewhere else."
Somewhere else in this case meant Texas and Utah. In 2007, after a big eradication effort in Arizona, pot farm numbers spiked in those two states. California remains consistently high. There’s a different trend happening there.
Scott says in states like California and Oregon that have had medical marijuana laws in place for over a decade, the DEA has seen drug operations try to get away with growing large-scale pot farms on private and public land.
"There was a perception that it was legal to grow it," Scott said.
He says large-scale pot operations on public lands are still a concern all over.
"They pose a real physical danger to people," Scott said. "We’ve seen more and more instances where traffickers have been willing to use violence to protect themselves and the crops. And because of that we’ve really pushed hard on the large grows we’re finding on park lands."
Scott said backpackers and hikers need to be aware of the signs:
"If you start to see a significant amount of trash, hoses running from water sources into these fields, turn and go the other way and do not provoke confrontation by any stretch of the imagination."
If you see a suspected pot farm, Scott said, report the site immediately to law enforcement.
Fronteras Desk is a project of public broadcasting entities in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas, including Arizona Public Media.