Oregon sheriffs battle pot growers on federal lands

MEDFORD, ORE. - As the helicopter raced over Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest on Saturday morning, the pilot explained his rationale for flying low and fast.

“We try to fly about 300 feet above the ground,” said the Jackson County sheriff’s deputy. “It’s better than at high altitude. This way you are only a target for a few seconds.”

Folks who grow marijuana on federal forestland have been known to take shots at unwanted visitors, he will tell you.

He and the co-pilot – both of whom asked not to be named or photographed because of the sensitivity of their work – were flying U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., to Gold Beach to discuss the growing marijuana problem on federal land with a team of drug fighters called Southern Oregon Multi-Agency Marijuana Eradication and Reclamation, or Sommer.

En route, the deputies pointed out sites where patches of marijuana plants had been confiscated in the mountains overlooking the Applegate Valley. Most of the raided patches resembled clear cuts from the air.

The pot isn’t just on federal land: The helicopter flew over countless marijuana plants growing behind tall fences adjacent to homes in Jackson and Josephine counties, which one of the deputies described as “pseudo medical marijuana” patches. Some of the sites had more than two dozen plants that look like oversized tomato plants from above.

But the pilot steered clear of what he described as two active “cartel grows” on federal land farther into the flight, noting that he didn’t want to tip off the growers.

A “grow” refers to an illegal marijuana patch. “Cartel” is a reference to Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, which law enforcement officials say are now involved in growing marijuana on federal land in the region.

To a man, the seven sheriffs in the group organized by Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters urged Walden for more funding to beef up their departments, which have been hit hard by budget cuts over the years.

Unlike domestic pot operations of years past, many of the plantations now growing on federal land are operated by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations who are well-financed and wellarmed, the sheriffs said.

“The longer it goes on, the harder it will be for us to overcome,” Winters told Walden. “They are better funded than us. There are more of them than there are of us.”

In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center’s 2010 national drug threat assessment released in February reported that the number of plants removed from public land grew more than 300 percent from 2004 to 2008, primarily from pot gardens operated by Mexican drug cartels. The pot growers favor public land because of its remoteness and because it can’t be seized or traced to an owner, the report said.

A separate 2008 NDIC report on cartel-related drugtrafficking organizations said the Federation cartel was active in Klamath Falls, and undetermined cartels were working in Medford and Roseburg.

To consolidate law enforcement efforts, Winters came up with the Sommer project and received a $202,000 federal grant to find, investigate, remove and clean up marijuana gardens on federal land this summer. Other counties participating in the project include Josephine, Curry, Coos, Douglas, Klamath and Lake.

The seven counties pulled out more than 55,000 pot plants from federal land in 2009, with nearly 30,000 of them coming from Jackson County.

After observing one eradicated pot plantation after another during the flight, Walden concluded to no one in particular, “We used to grow timber.”

The congressman, who told the sheriffs he would do everything he could to help their cause, is urging U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to increase their efforts to stop pot growing on federal lands. Vilsack oversees the Forest Service, while Salazar is in charge of the Bureau of Land Management.