LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — We’ve all heard about marijuana being smuggled over the border from Mexico.
But these days, more and more marijuana is being grown right here. Go out for a hike and you might stumble into a grow-site – and stumble into serious danger, as the war on drugs plays out in backyards and on public land across Southern California.
KCAL9’s Rachel Kim reports the National Park Service calls marijuana cultivation a “growing” problem.
Over the last five years, the organization has seen a phenomenal jump in the number of plants on public lands in western states – tens of millions every year. And California tops the list.
“It’s a very unique environment we are here to protect. It was never meant for the cultivation of marijuana,” Santa Monica Mountains Chief Ranger Evan Jones said.
Jones says in recent years, rangers have discovered pot farms in Encinal Canyon, Malibu Creek State Park and Topanga State Park.
“There could be anywhere from two, three, four sites throughout the mountains,” he said.
In one of the most remote areas of the Santa Monica Mountains is a trail popular with visitors who want to escape into wilderness and nature. But that’s exactly what makes these areas so attractive to growers.
“It’s really the weather and the water and the remoteness of the mountains that attract the marijuana cultivators,” Jones explained.
The National Park Service says after 9/11, sophisticated drug trafficking organizations found it cheaper to cultivate here – where the demand is – than trying to smuggle it from Mexico or South America into the U.S. The plants can bring in $1,000-$4,000 per pound.
U.S. Forest Service Patrol Captain Anthony Rose says local, state and federal authorities are working together to combat the grows.
He says through reconnaissance “we have an advantage because we’re coming in at unknown times.”
“Our law enforcement officers throughout the state of California and nationwide take this threat very seriously. These are armed growers. The potential for violence is there,” Rose warned.
Authorities aim to disrupt and dismantle these operations.
“You have hikers out there on our forest trails who are hiking with families and children and they unintentionally come across these sites. We want to ensure that our visitors and employees are safe out there,” Rose said.
U.S. Forest investigators tell KCAL9 that in 2013, almost one million marijuana plants were discovered on national forests in California. Once the plants are eradicated, the reclamation begins.
Rose says growers are clearing acres of vegetation, damming creeks and rivers, and putting in tubing to divert water to the plants. And not even California’s severe drought is keeping them away.
“It’s a tremendous impact on our ecosystems and environment,” he said.
“They can use water tanks, natural, man-made springs, you name it, if there’s a water source, these marijuana growers will use it to irrigate plants.”
Growers live on location for months, setting up camp until the fall harvest season.
Authorities find tents, sleeping bags, propane tanks, food, personal belongings and weapons. Among the thousands of pounds of trash – piping used as water lines, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and rodenticides. These toxic chemicals contaminate our water sources and kill wildlife.
Law enforcement officers are now actively patrolling areas looking for signs of cultivation. Although they believe the Santa Monica Mountains are safe for visitors, they ask for the public’s vigilance.
“We prepare ourselves to the highest standard to eliminate the threat if there is one,” Rose said.
Rose also urges anyone who sees irrigation piping in the vegetation of the mountains to get out of the area and contact a ranger immediately.