Monday, April 23, 2012

A New Hazard to Back Country Travels

The snow is almost gone down here in my neck of the woods!  Weekend travels took me up under the rim of the Boulder Mountain, at nearly 9,500 feet in elevation...something we haven't normally been able to do until almost June!  It's looking like we are just a couple of weeks away from being able to cross over the top of the mountain, with 80 degree temperatures in the valleys.  This is mixed news; great for those longing to camp in the mountains, great for those wanting to hit ice off fishing at several lakes, but bad for those relying on the runoff for irrigation, fire danger, and plant growth for wildlife and livestock.  It is also very good for a group of people that seek another kind of profit from our public lands.

Marijuana plants pulled up and stacked
Many of you are already aware of the arrival of marijuana farms to the mountains of the west.  So, a lot of what I want to share tonight may not be new news to many of you.  However, I do believe that it never hurts to spread the word of this issue more, and maybe I will also mention items you may not be so familiar with.

What would I know about pot farms in the mountains?  Well, I work in the mountains all year long, chasing fires, doing project work, hunting, fishing, hiking, you name it.  One of the benefits of working for a federal agency (USFS) is the fact that our federal agencies are very safety oriented.  So, I receive a lot of safety training on this topic.  I have also discovered these "grow sites" and have been involved with the removal of the plants and materials from these growers.  One thing we have been told many times over the years at work is that this is the time (spring) to keep your eyes open as individuals associated with these grows tour our mountains looking for the perfect grow site.  That's why I want to share this with you today.  As we can get in the hills early this year it is very likely someone may run onto these guys looking for their sites.  So what are you looking for?  Well, I hate to sound like I'm "profiling" here, but they are going to be Hispanic, as these men are associated with the Mexican Mafia, and Mexican drug cartels.  At first it may just be a couple of them cruising the hills, or hiking around.  After a while they will return with trucks full of supplies.  One of the best indicators is trucks loaded with black plastic pipe, as you would see in a lawn sprinkler system, or garden drip system.

What is the danger posed?  Well, number one, these guys try extremely hard to hide their grow sites!  They do not want to be found or reported, their crop is worth MILLIONS.  Every site discovered so far has turned up men armed with various weapons, some sites have been booby trapped, and the various chemicals used by the growers can also be a hazard.  Your life is in danger, no doubt about it, when you walk into one of these sites.  They are very good at using lookouts and protecting their sites.  If you could ever see one of these grow sites, I'm sure you would be amazed by the amount of damage done to the area as well.  Cut trees, trash scattered around everywhere...I could not believe people could pack so much stuff into such a remote site!  In fact, at one site we cleaned up it took 6 helicopter sling loads just to get it all packed back out.  That did not include the enormous trash pit (filled with trash) that we simply covered back up. 

A load in a net, awaiting the helicopter
Now I want to share with you some tips if you do come across one of these sites.  The site we discovered a couple of years ago was really not that far from a main road.  As we were hiking, scouting a new area that we were moving into to burn (prescribed fire) in the future, we crossed a ridge top and began to smell a very strong that of a skunk.  We had been told that this is one of the first indicators that a grow may be near, but hey, this is the mountains, skunks are out there in greater numbers than marijuana farms!  As we continued on cautiously we could hear the sound of tools clinking in the rocks.  We stopped, knowing what we had almost stumbled into.  In fact, one crewmember was so close that she could hear them talking.  What do you do in this situation?  As trained, we immediately followed out footsteps back out the way we came in.  Don't wander around, don't try to get a better look.  If you think you have found one, turn around and head back the way you came in.  If you stumble into one, the best way I have ever heard of getting out was a woman acting like a "dumb" tourist.  She made comments that it was so nice to see someone else out in the hills, and that it was a great day for hiking.  After smiling and carrying on about the scenery, she bid them farewell and headed on with her "hike".

Utah National Guard hauling it out
When you get back to civilization, quickly contact law enforcement to tell them what you have found.  It is also probably a good idea at this point to not broadcast the exact location to your friends.  You don't want them getting curious and heading out to look for themselves, and you don't want word to spread, hurting the chances of law enforcement making a successful raid.

In short, be careful when you are out and about.  A few years ago a grow site was taken out in one of my favorite, far off the beaten path hunting areas.  I'm lucky that I had been to busy to make the long hike that year.  They would have seen me coming from below for a good mile, and I would have walked right into that very aspen stand where they were growing.  I get very nervous about hitting the back country by myself now.  It's a shame that this has to be a worry for us as we enjoy our public lands, and our favorite activities in the outdoors.  It is a real danger, and you need to be educated, and have a plan in case you run into this situation.

Second site of the day (nearly 16,000 plants) being loaded into dump trucks 
So, keep your eyes peeled this spring/summer, and please don't hesitate to contact local authorities if you come across something you think is suspicious!  Be very aware that local law enforcement in my area already has leads on growers in this area, and I would bet they are out and about all over the west with the great weather this year.   Enjoy what the outdoors has to offer, but do be careful!