War in the Woods: Combating Marijuana Cartels on Our Public Lands

Nov 15, 2010 - by James A. Swan, Ph.D.

War in the Woods: Combating Marijuana Cartels on Our Public Lands.  by Lt. John Nores Jr. and James A. Swan

An excerpt from the book War in the Woods: Combating Marijuana Cartels on Our Public Lands.

by Lt. John Nores Jr. and James A. Swan

Nationwide, there are around 7,000 game wardens, or about as many of NYPD's finest as are assigned to cover the New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square.

Nowhere are game wardens abundant, but the situation is especially bad in California, and man and nature are paying a price.

California's game wardens are responsible for protecting more than 1,000 native fish and wildlife species, more than 6,000 native plant species, and approximately 360 endangered species, as well as criminal, civil and traffic law, plus search and rescue, hunter education and assisting wildlife biologists; yet, at any given time, today there are about 240 wardens on patrol in California, and that's nearly 50 wardens more than in 2007, when I began making a documentary about California's game warden crisis..

Three years ago, the http://www.californiafishandgamewardens.com/ California Fish and Game Wardens Association asked me to make a documentary about them. One consequence of the acute warden shortage is a $100 million a year black market in wildlife trafficking. A second consequence is that public wild lands are being taken over by international drug cartels to grow marijuana.

Riding along on a bust of a marijuana groves in Foothills Regional Park in Palo Alto with Lt. John Nores in 2008 was my initiation into a world of violence to man and the land that I had not expected. One garden with 10,000 plants was hidden in a thicket within 50 yards of busy Page Mill Road. The garden was ringed with chicken wire and rat poison. Fertilizer bags, many with Spanish labels containing chemicals not allowed here, were strewn everywhere. A spider web of black plastic irrigation pipes with drip timers was everywhere among a 6' tall bright green crop worth a cool million bucks. Luckily this garden did not have booby traps: pitfalls, trip lines attached to shotguns, and/or bear traps.

In April, cartel growers move into lands like this looking for locations with nearby water sources, and thick stands of bushes like manzanita. They cut out the understory plants and plant marijuana, leaving the overhead canopy to camouflage them from aerial detection. Hiking into grow locations sometimes several miles from a road, the growers carry heavy loads of propane tanks, plastic irrigation pipes, camping gear,  food, garden supplies, and weapons.

As the plants begin to germinate, streams are dammed and miles of black plastic irrigation pipelines are laid out, connecting the lucrative crop with pools of water seasoned with fertilizers and pesticides to create a cocktail that makes the plants grow rapidly. Deer and bear that wander into the gardens become meals. The growers are kept supplied with food and water by carefully planned drops. Piles of cans and garbage begin to accumulate.

August through October, the harvest takes place. Two hunters were shot and killed by growers last year. Two hikers were killed in Oregon in 2008.

The first major cartel gardens were found in the Sierras in the late 1990's. This year the inter-agency marijuana eradication team, http://www.ag.ca.gov/bne/camp.php CAMP, took out over four-million plants throughout the state. Despite the best of efforts, the number of grows busted increases every year, as do shootings. Five growers were killed in eight shootouts this year.

Law enforcement says it can only get about 10 percent of what is being grown. Apparently increased border security has promoted increased growing on California soil.

In Mendocino County, epicenter of the "Green Triangle" where marijuana is legal according to local laws and generates at least half the local economy, the hippies have been chased out of the woods at gunpoint by cartel growers. Some private citizens up there are forming their own pot patrols.

In the spring of 2010, a grand jury in Mendocino County declared a "State of Emergency" about loss of control of wild lands. Another grand jury supported this cry citing the fact that a mature marijuana plant drinks in a gallon of water a day, and water supplies in the county are dwindling. The water-guzzling wild land grows are also decimating spawning streams for trout, salmon, and endangered steelhead and red-legged frogs; hurting farmers and medical marijuana growers; and contaminating drinking water.

We have lost control of the woods, and it's spreading. This summer warnings to hikers, fishermen and hunters to be on the lookout for gardens and growers were not only posted by the Forest Service and BLM in northern California, they were also issued for Great Lakes states and Appalachia, and of course the Southwest.

My baptism with Lt. Nores not only generated a lot of good footage for http://www.jamesswan.com/snowgoose/wardendoc.html "Endangered Species: CA Fish and Game Wardens," a 66-minute documentary narrated by Jameson Parker from the "Simon and Simon" series, but it led John and I to collaborate on a book, War In The Woods: Combating the Marijuana Cartels On Our Public Lands (Lyons Press) that hit the bookstores in 2010.

I provide the introduction and background. John tells it like it – eight stories of busts of marijuana grows. To give you a feel for what he does, there is an online trailer for the book at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZUnQUpAq1E

   But the real meat and potatoes are his stories. Here's an excerpt from one in Chapter Four.

…Snake was just starting to get up and lead us after the two men when suddenly he and Ranger snapped their rifles up and into the upper edge of the garden.  Without saying a word, Cheetah and I dropped back to the ground and slowly slipped our backpacks off.  With our Glock pistols at the low ready, we knew a mope was somewhere ahead of us in the garden and close.  Cheetah and I were on full alert as we watched and waited to see who was in range of being chased down and just a few seconds from being caught.

The grower had no idea we were on the trail ahead of him as he bounded between rows of waist-high marijuana plants.  All four of us up front had turned to our right and were now kneeling down frozen and facing the mope head on.  Snake and Ranger had their AR15’s shouldered and were looking for weapons on the man as he approached our position, now just 25 yards away and closing.  Dressed in blue jeans, a drab t-shirt and a baseball cap, the thin and wiry man continued toward us, still oblivious to the four operators waiting so close ahead.

Both Snake and Ranger were positioned below and out of our way on the edge of the trail.  This allowed Cheetah and I a straight shot at our suspect if a foot chase started.  At this rate, the mope was going to walk right into our team, still not identifying us in our camouflage. 

I leaned slightly forward, placing the majority of my weight on my left foot in front of me while simultaneously planting my right foot behind me, preparing my body for the imminent sprint.  Just a few feet ahead of me and true to his operator name, my partner was crouched and moving up and down slowly like the big predator cat getting ready to tackle his prey.  He raised and bent his arms along the sides of his chest, and continued to spring up and down slowly, preparing for his sprint just seconds away.  Shakes of excitement ripped through our bodies and minds as the mope closed the gap, now just 20 yards away.

When the man reached the 15-yard mark, Cheetah and I were half a second from breaking concealment and blasting forward to tackle him. Before doing so and barely in time to stop our pursuit, we heard Ranger whisper frantically, “He’s got a long gun slung on his right shoulder!”  This statement immediately changed the mindset of what would happen next.  Cheetah and I raised our Glock pistols up on target towards the mope as we realized no chase or tackle was going to happen now.  Not with a firearm on the suspect.  Thank heaven for Ranger’s attentive eyes and picking up the weapon on this man. 

Within a second of Ranger’s observation and with the gunman now “danger close” and only 10 yards away, Snake identified us and told the suspect, “Police, stop and put your hands up!”   The man’s reaction was surreal and unexpected.  The mope stopped in his tracks.  His eyes widened in shock for just a second before his expression turned vicious.  The gunman’s brow tightened, his eyes squinted, and the expression on his face turned from shock to anger and we could all see what was about to happen.  Even with four guns trained on him, he was not going to back down.

Lasting only a few seconds, the felon’s actions dictated our response.  With that scowl on his face, the mope swung the shotgun toward our team and started to reach for it.  Our hearts were pounding now with anger and shock and just half a second from pressing the triggers on our pistols, Cheetah and I heard a single, loud, high pitched crack ring out and echo deep in the canyon.  The mope wailed out a long and loud, “Aigh!!” as a single .223 caliber, 64 grain power point bullet ripped through the center of his chest.

Dropping the shotgun immediately and gripping his chest frantically as if stung by a bee, the mope dropped to his knees before falling on his face and hitting the trail. Snake had engaged the gunman with a single shot, making a perfect center of mass hit to his sternum, to stop him from trying to kill the four of us.  Engagement distance was just less than 10 yards.  And the fight was not over.

On the ground now, the felon crawled towards the shotgun and grabbed it before trying to engage us with it again.  Now we brought the fight to him.  The cacophony of two AR15’s firing simultaneously in rapid succession at close range was deafening, as Snake and Ranger engaged the felon on the ground.  After multiple hits from both operators the gun-fire ceased and the gunman no longer moved.  He was finished.

I was surprised when just seconds after the last AR15 rounds were fired, I saw the familiar sight of an M14 flash hider and barrel moving past the right side of my face as Marcos moved past me to fill in and add cover to the fight.  Feeling his hand on my right shoulder as this happened and hearing him say, “On your six Trailblazer, and moving to you!” was comforting.  Marcos had heard so much gunfire up front and thinking his team mates were in major trouble, he wasted no time moving up to get in the fight and help. 

Realizing the gunman was being handled by Snake and Ranger, Cheetah and I directed our pistols further downhill and scanned deeper into the grow with Marcos doing the same with his M14.  The two other growers witnessed earlier were still out there, ignored but not forgotten. 

We looked up just in time to see both mopes running downhill and away like rabbits.  They apparently wanted nothing to do with that action and were leaving their buddy to fend for himself. 

The taller of the two growers towered well above the chest-high budded plants.  And looking back in our direction as he ran, the mope appeared to be carrying a long gun over his left shoulder.  The second man, much shorter than the first, was not looking at anything except the path in front of him, clearly just wanting to get out of the area quickly.

Once we were sure the gunman was not going to move again, Snake conducted a sit-rep (situation report) on the team, having everyone call out their names and indicate if they were “up” or not.  “Up” means you are operational with no problems or injuries and good to go. 

Immediately following the sit-rep, Snake radioed the QRF, already close and just a few yards behind us on the trail, to come up and cover.  Wasting no time and knowing we had two more mopes on the run, Cheetah and I quickly told Snake what we had seen and what direction the mopes were headed.  I told Snake we knew their direction of travel and could cover him to the east if he wanted to head downhill and cut their escape trail below while at the same time clearing that side of the garden.  Snake agreed and before the three of us moved out, he directed a secondary team to work down through the western edge of the grow to check and clear that side of the garden.  Ranger, Marcos, and Rails comprised that team and were already moving before Snake finished conveying his plan. 

With a dead gunman in the middle of the garden, we now had a crime scene to deal with.  Not only did we have to clear the immediate area of all threats, we also had to do so without disturbing anything critical to the impending shooting investigation…     

* * * * * * * * *

When you write a book about a serious problem like this, you always hope that something will happen when people read it. The same is true for making a documentary.

“Endangered Species: California Fish and Game Wardens,” premiered in January 2009, attracting the largest crowd on the biggest day of the International Sportsmen’s Expo in Sacramento. Two weeks later the wardens gave copies to every member of the Assembly and Senate, as well as the Governor’s Office, and key state administrators. The timing was very appropriate as the 2009 budget proposal called for cutting the warden force in half, as if having the worst per capita ratio of game wardens in the United States was not bad enough already.

Three weeks later the budget cut for game wardens was rejected. Several months later, legislation was passed to create a new $5 “Game Warden Stamp,” which can be purchased online or at every location where hunting and fishing licenses are sold. Money from the stamp sales goes to support the education and training of game wardens.

The documentary has been shown in all kinds of venues around the state, and while I can't claim it's the only thing promoting the wardens, it does help.

There were 38 graduating cadets in last year's game warden academy. That's more than they've had in years.  They are up to 240 wardens in the field, from 198. And, even in these cash-short times, the 2010-2011 budget for Fish and Game Wardens calls for adding six more wardens to the force.

In addition, early viewing of rough cuts of the documentary helped inspire a new reality series about California's game wardens that will premiere on the National Geographic Channel beginning November 28, http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/series/wild-justice/4952/Overview “Wild Justice.” John is one of lead wardens in the series and I'm a co-executive producer.

"Wild Justice" is produced by Original Productions, a FremantleMedia Company, who also produce every day hero unscripted reality series', "The Deadliest Catch", “Ax Men,” "America's Port" and "Ice Road Truckers".

The woods are quiet now for a few brief months until the cycle begins all over again. This is when cleaning up the mess takes place, with help from all kinds of volunteer groups. Cartel gardens leave behind mountains of trash. At the least, we hope that War in the Woods will stimulate conservation groups, scouting troops and corporations to pitch in and help clean up marijuana grows. The bill for clean-up can otherwise run $10,000 an acre.

At the most, we hope that it will move people to give more support to the brave law enforcement men and women who are on the front lines of the war in our woods. Without them, we will lose this war.

Authors: http://www.johnnores.com/John_Nores_Jr/Home.html Lt. John Nores, JR, and http://www.jamesswan.com/ James A. Swan, Ph.D

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