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 Michoacan, 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.