Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pot growers threaten public land

Pot growers threaten public land:

Producer: Jason Auslander
Reporter: Kim Holland

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - A large marijuana plantation found in a remote part of Bandelier National Monument this summer was an eye-opener for public lands officials in New Mexico.

Not only do monument employees plan to search for similar gardens on foot and by helicopter every summer from now on, they believe the size of the plantation might be a dangerous sign that Mexican drug cartels are moving into New Mexican forests, said Jason Lott, Bandelier’s superintendent.

“They would want to protect their investment and those that may inadvertently find it are at great risk,” Lott said. “It’s dangerous to have here for the visiting public.”

In August, air crews surveying damage from the Las Conchas Fire south of Los Alamos flew over the plantation and immediately knew what it was, Lott said. The bright green plants – some of them 10-feet high – stuck out amid the blackened brush and charred trees.

When they headed into Frijoles Canyon on foot, investigators found six gardens spaced out over five acres. Three of the gardens had already been harvested but officers still found 10,000 plants worth an estimated $10 million.

It was one of the largest marijuana plantations ever found on public land in New Mexico, Lott said.

Officers also discovered evidence that the growers lived on site – including a shelter with walls, a tarp roof and beds made of dried marijuana plants. A News 13 reporter and photographer, who visited the site with Lott recently, saw a makeshift kitchen, a reservoir for water and even a religious shrine.

Officials worry that hikers could have been injured or worse if they’d stumbled upon the plantation. They warn that illegal gardens like the one in Bandelier could be booby-trapped or guarded by men with guns.

“We know that (the growers at Bandelier) were armed,” Lott said. “We actually recovered weapons on the site.”

An example of the danger presented by such plantations occurred in California in August, when a forest land manager was shot and killed when he came across an illegal pot farm.

The U.S. Forest Service has seen illegal marijuana gardens across the West for years. That’s because it’s easier to hide the pot in remote forest areas. And also because it’s not grown on private land, it’s harder for law enforcement to track the growers and the government can’t seize the property.

And while the Bandelier plantation is one of the largest encountered in New Mexico so far, smaller grows on public land are far more common.

Chris Boehn, an undercover officer for the U.S. Forest Service, recently showed a News 13 reporter a small garden found east of Albuquerque in the Cibola National Forest. He said officers could smell the skunky stench a mile away, even though he only found seven plants.

Still, just because it’s small doesn’t make it any less dangerous, he said.

“Our biggest issue is someone stumbles across it and maybe have a confrontation with the person who is actually growing it,” Boehn said.

And armed men are only the beginning of the problems posed by illegal growers. Others include trash left behind – including elaborate irrigation systems -- deforested land, poached animals and poisons like pesticides and herbicides.

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