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Pot Sinks Roots in High Country of Northwest

Traffickers, seeing green, plant the illegal cash crop widely, challenging the limited resources of law enforcement.

October 09, 2005|Shannon Dininny | Associated Press Writer

ENTIAT, Wash. — Wary eyes search for rattlesnakes in the desert grasses covering the dry hills. The scorched remains of pine trees form an old wildfire tower overhead. But, hidden beneath a thicket of brush, bright, green plants stand out.

In terraced dirt, nurtured by an elaborate sprinkler system, 465 marijuana plants have been tucked away, obscured by the winding branches of vine maple and alder bushes.

It's a remote area of north-central Washington's Wenatchee National Forest, bordering the Entiat Wildlife Refuge to the south and a rural farmer's apple orchard to the east.

It's also a small find. Law enforcement officials have seized thousands of plants in Washington state in recent months, forcing them to abandon their ongoing battle against methamphetamine for days at a time.

Some blame the post-Sept. 11 border crackdown that slowed the flow of marijuana -- pot known as BC Bud -- from western Canada. Others say increasing enforcement in California and Oregon is pushing pot production north.

Regardless, these "gardens," as those who hunt the plants euphemistically call them, are wreaking havoc on counties where huge tracts of open space stretch resources thin.

Chelan County, home to the largest number of busts this year with about 35,000 plants confiscated, covers nearly 3,000 square miles -- 80% of it forested federal land.

"This is reality: A marijuana plant averages about 6 feet tall in its maturity. We're not going to be able to find it all," said Mike Harum, the sheriff of Chelan County. "We've done as much as we can financially -- our staff and our helicopters -- to do the best we can. We need help from the federal government, state government."

Federal officials have recognized the increasing activity. The Justice Department said in July that Mexican drug traffickers were expanding their areas of operation, with continued growth expected in isolated areas of Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

In particular, federal officials warned local police that central Washington's rural interstate corridor on the east slope of the Cascade Mountains was a growing link in the drug-trafficking chain.

The numbers bear that out. In 2004, law enforcement officials confiscated a record 133,936 marijuana plants, pushing the state to No. 5 nationally in the number of domestic plants seized. The largest, a field of more than 60,000 plants on south-central Washington's Yakama Indian Reservation, was traced to organized crime in Mexico.

Valued at more than $35 million, it remains one of the largest U.S. busts ever.

So far this year, police have confiscated more than 82,000 plants entering the fall season, when wandering hikers and hunters are likely to stumble onto the fields and call in tips to police.

"It's not a remote area, but it's certainly spread out -- a lot of national parks, fish and wildlife land, tribal lands. I don't want to say they can come up here and get lost, but for the most part, they can have a little grow out someplace and go undetected," said Mel Rodriguez, the Drug Enforcement Administration's agent in charge in Yakima.

Case in point: The hourlong hike across steep slopes and through the bramble of Oklahoma Gulch seemed to go nowhere.

The barest excuse of a trail led to the 465 marijuana plants, tucked beneath bushes trimmed just enough to allow sunlight to peek through. The plants were spotted during helicopter surveillance.

Yet another bust came at 4,000 feet in heavy timber. Growers knew they ran the risk of early frost by extending their growing season into October at such a high altitude, but they also knew that police had never looked so high for it before, Harum said.

Two hunters stumbled onto the pot field and notified authorities. A helicopter flight weeks earlier had turned back a half-mile short of the area, believing no grower would set up shop so high.

Aside from the sheer number of plants, perhaps more telling is the size and sophistication of the groves, said Ron Pugh, the Forest Service's special agent for the Pacific Northwest.

Growers dammed a nearby creek in Oklahoma Gulch, piping water to the plants, which were fed by an elaborate sprinkler system operating on a timer.

On the Yakima reservation, each of the 60,000-plus plants confiscated last year had been watered individually through a drip-irrigation system.

"The amount of work that goes into these grows is tremendous. They're clearing out areas. They're redirecting water up to a mile in some places," said Clyde Foreman, chief criminal deputy for the Chelan County sheriff's office. "These guys are very serious, and they're very good at what they do."

Most of the so-called gardens have been tied to Mexican nationals, who are recruited by drug traffickers at the border and dropped off at fields.

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