I-Team goes on pot raid in Mendocino Nat'l Forest


CAMP is a joint effort of federal, state and local law enforcement. The U.S. Forest Service is also out there, busting huge pot farms on public land. They allowed the I-Team to see them in action.

The Mendocino National Forest has an old slogan, "The Land of Many Uses." That has taken on new meaning as Mexican drug trafficking organizations are using the remote public land for massive marijuana farms.

It is so remote that law enforcement has to fly helicopters to spot the pot plants.

"This time of year, this is the only type of plant that's really being watered and it's really the greenest and it really just stands out from the air," a special agent said.

The U.S. Forest Service allowed the I-Team to accompany their special agents, firefighters and Tehama County sheriff's deputies on a raid last month.

It took the I-Team an hour and a half hiking down incredibly steep terrain to get to the area and really, that is the point for the pot growers.

"They don't want to be detected, they don't want to be found, they don't want to be contacted by the public or us; that's why they're in the middle of nowhere," the agent said.

The pot farmers learn the terrain during the four-to-five month long growing season and they usually can spot the authorities before they arrive at the camp. That is what happened on the raid the I-Team went along on.

"There was some suspects that did get away, we weren't able to capture them," USDA Forest Service spokesperson John Heil said.

Agents found some old irrigation tubing from a pot farm that was busted last year, so the growers are not hesitant to come back to the same area, even after a bust.

"Sometimes we can catch them and sometimes we can't, it just depends; they're very familiar with the terrain and how to maneuver around it typically," Heil said.

The growers' camp showed the workers were there for the long haul -- a full kitchen with supplies, a stove with a propane tank, a hammock, a tent and a mound of trash left behind, including pesticide and rodent repellant.

"The goal here with this stuff was to keep the insects and the rats and things like that away from their plants," Heil said.

The growers damned a stream, lined the pool with tarps and ran irrigation hoses across the mountainside. They cut away trees and cleared brush and terraced the hillside to plant thousands of marijuana plants.

The work to tear it all out was grueling. A small crew of Forest Service firefighters and special agents trudged up and down the mountainside, clipping the plants, counting them and stacking them.

Throughout the day, they bundled up the plants and a helicopter dropped the hook and flew them out. Final count -- 6,615 marijuana plants. The Forest Service puts the street value at more than $8 million.

This is the one type of marijuana grow that is always illegal even with the medical marijuana laws and the possible passage of Prop 19 for recreational use.

"Marijuana cultivation, any sort of grows on public lands, is illegal," Heil said.

The authorities say most often, Mexican drug trafficking organizations are behind the huge operations on public land.

Those involved in the raid say they are not concerned about the debate over legalizing marijuana. For them, it is about, above all, preserving the national forest.

"We want to make sure the public has a safe forest to recreate in and enjoy and also we want to make sure its environmentally the way it should be and kept and preserved," Heil said.

The Forest Service raids are counted in the CAMP numbers. In all, they pulled off 755 raids this growing season, made 103 arrests and confiscated 108 weapons.

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