2013-09-05 / Local & State

Forest Pot Farms Raise Alarms In State, Beyond Analysis: Big Health-care, Spending Fight Looms

By Bob Frye
By Steven R. Hurst

PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW

GREENSBURG, Pa. (AP) – Visits to Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin come with a warning these days.

It’s not ticks that forest officials tell hunters, anglers and hikers to worry about. It’s not lightning or dangerous weather. It’s not even black bears, timber rattlesnakes or the mountain lions that roam wild in the state for the first time since 1910.

It’s drugs.

Industrial-scale marijuana “grows’’ – hidden plantations that are cultivated by organized drug cartels, guarded by armed groups of illegal immigrants and worth millions of dollars – once were confined to the western United States, but they have moved eastward and popped up on the Chequamegon-Nicolet.

“Drug trafficking-organization marijuana growers are dangerous and are known to carry firearms,’’ reads an alert on the forest’s website. “The (forest) asks that visitors be aware of their surroundings and know what to do to remain safe.’’

From 2008 to 2012, law enforcement officials eradicated 67,827 marijuana plants from the Chequamegon-Nicolet, according to forest spokeswoman Megan Healy. They’re aware of 75,000 plants that growers harvested before officials got to them.

There’s an environmental cost to the operations, Healy noted. The grows spawn erosion that clouds native trout streams. They diminish wildlife as guards destroy habitats and poach animals for food and to keep them from nibbling the crop. They foul drinking water with pesticides and human waste from primitive camps.

Cleaning that up can cost as much as $15,000 an acre, according to U.S. Forest Service statistics.

Drug operations present highstakes threats to people, too, said David Spakowicz, eastern region director of field operations for the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

A single marijuana plant might be worth a minimum of $1,000, he said. A grow with 10,000 plants – not unheard of – could therefore be worth $10 million.

“People might look at this and say, ‘Oh, it’s just weed.’ Well, no. These grows pose a huge danger to the recreational public with all of the money to be made,’’ Spakowicz said.

“If you haven’t seen this in Pennsylvania, you’re very, very lucky.’’

A common problem

Large-scale cultivation of drugs on public land is a phenomenon that began in California in 1995. As of last year, the practice had spread to 68 national forests in 20 states. Pennsylvania is not among them.

But that doesn’t mean drugs aren’t a part of Pennsylvania’s wildlands. People have grown marijuana on public land here since the late 1960s – just not on the scale of what occurs in places such as Wisconsin, said Rich Palmer, chief law enforcement officer for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

“We find cultivation sites on game lands throughout the state. Pretty much every region experiences it, to some degree, pretty much every year,’’ he said.

Officers in Western Pennsylvania have investigated cases involving individual plants and spots with as many as 250, from Washington to Westmoreland counties, said Scott Tomlinson, law enforcement supervisor in the commission’s Southwest Region office in Bolivar.

Dan Sitler, a conservation officer in Washington County, said that in 2011, he confiscated 21 7- foot-tall marijuana plants from State Game Lands 117 near Burgettstown. He got 36 plants last year.

“I’ve always said I don’t think there’s a game land in the state that doesn’t have some kind of marijuana on it. It might be one plant or dozens, but it’s there,’’ Sitler said.

Marijuana is common in Pennsylvania’s national forest, the Allegheny, said Steve Burd, a ranger there for 16 years who oversees law enforcement in national forests in Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

A typical Allegheny “garden’’ might include 25 plants, though some have contained as many as 100, he said.

“Marijuana growing on a national forest has been around throughout my career, and it was around before that, too,’’ Burd said.

But for state parks, it’s a “nonevent,’’ said Department of Conservation and Natural Resources spokesman Terry Brady. They’re typically too small and too populated to offer the secrecy growers desire, he said.

Less developed, more remote state forests attract growers.

“The scale of it varies from year to year,’’ said Jason Hall, recreation section chief for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry. “A lot of times, the marijuana isn’t even planted in the ground. It’s in pots people carried into the woods.’’

Ed Callahan, district forester for Forbes State Forest, based in Laughlintown, said officials find larger marijuana operations on occasion, such as a few years ago in Fayette County.

“We had some fairly large grows actually,’’ Callahan said. “I think these people are looking for the most remote place where they can to do their thing out of sight.’’

Hobby or business?

The smaller size of the marijuana operations found on Pennsylvania’s public lands doesn’t mean they’re only for private use.

Criminals are just trying to be smarter these days, authorities say.

“The more common thing now is for people to plant smaller plots – but more of them. It’s playing the odds,’’ Palmer said. “That way, even if you lose half your plots, you still have something.’’

Having fewer than 20 plants in one location keeps the crime at a misdemeanor level if a grower is caught, Sitler said.

Still, growers don’t like to lose or give up plants.

Armed guards patrol largescale grows in other states, and booby traps aren’t uncommon.

Both are rare in Pennsylvania, but growers have encircled plots with monofilament line laced with fish hooks and hung it at eye level, or placed trip wires connected to firing devices that could set off shotgun shells, Palmer said.

“If you see something that looks suspicious, you don’t want to just go in there stomping around,’’ Tomlinson said. “It’s a real public safety issue, in our eyes.

“That’s why the message we want to send to people who might want to do this is, ‘We’re not just interested in finding this stuff; we’re interested in finding you and prosecuting you for it.’ ... We want to solve the problem, not just move it.’’

Moving target

Authorities confiscated 3.34 million marijuana plants from national forest land in California in fiscal year 2009, according to the Forest Service. By fiscal 2012, the total fell to about 838,000 plants.

Some worry that enforcement efforts move, rather than eliminate, grows.

But economics might be behind growers’ expansion to the Midwest, though, Spakowicz theorized. Growing plants closer to cities where people buy the drug cuts the risk of getting caught and reduces transportation costs, he said.

Is it reasonable to suspect, then, that drug growers might move into Pennsylvania’s forests to avoid legal pressure and get closer to markets in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York?

Adam Reed, a Pennsylvania State Police public information officer, said there’s no indication that that’s occurring.

“And hopefully the trend doesn’t make its way this direction,’’ he said.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON (AP) – Stand by for one of the nastiest and, perhaps most economically dangerous U.S. political fights in recent memory.

As the languorous Washington summer draws to a close, Congress returns to the capital next month with stark battle lines drawn on spending issues that, if left unresolved, could shove the United States into defaulting on its debt for the first time or force the government to shut down for lack of funding. Conservative Republicans threaten one or both unless Democrats and the White House surrender to right wing demands to slash spending for President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

While there is an internal debate in the Republican party over how to proceed, a growing number of legislators are concerned by what they perceive as overspending by the government, and they are determined to refuse action on the debt ceiling or the budget without major spending cuts from Democrats. Heated rhetoric stemming from the differences that divide the two parties – Republicans’ desire to reduce spending on large benefit programs and Democrats’ push for increased tax revenue – could cool as deadlines draw nearer. Republicans in particular are deeply divided on how far to push on denying a debt limit increase or shutting down the government over the budget.

The fight also concerns cuts that already have sliced huge chunks out of the defense spending, a burr under the saddle of Republicans, and government funded social programs, part of the Democrats’ political catechism. Congressional action is needed to lift those cuts, which were part of a 2011 deal that side-stepped debt default two years ago.

Those reductions run through 2021, but were intended to be so onerous to both political parties that they would be forced to compromise. That never happened as the nation’s capital fell into the grip of a partisan stalemate not seen in decades.

Efforts to bridge the chasm during the August legislative break have proven a fool’s errand, with neither side any closer to a big deal that would reduce the nation’s deficit – the issue drives all others when it comes to any agreement on taxes and spending by an increasingly unpopular Washington government.

“The president has been trying for months, privately and quietly, with Republican leaders in the House and Senate to work out some sort of reasonable compromise. As of this date there is no evidence of progress,’’ said Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat who is assistant majority leader and whip. “I’m afraid we’re going to go to the brink. I hope I’m wrong.’’

The White House says it will not negotiate over health care reforms, period.

Here’s what’s at stake as soon as Congress returns on Sept. 9.

First, the federal budget year ends on Sept. 30, and there is no agreement between members of the Republicancontrolled House of Representatives and the Democrat-controlled Senate on a budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Without a deal on a new spending plan or at least an agreement to temporarily continue funding at current levels, the government would be forced to shut-down. That happened in the mid- 1990s when Bill Clinton was president, and it cost opposition Republicans dearly.

Then, within a couple of weeks, the government will reach its limit on borrowing, known as the debt limit. Unless Congress agrees to raise that limit, the government would likely default on some of its debt, which would be a first in the country’s history. Until Obama was elected president in 2008, raising the debt limit was a matter of course. But Republican threats to block the increase in 2010, when they had regained control of the House, caused one of the global rating institutions to lower U.S. government creditworthiness for the first time.

The primary Republican target this time is Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system. Republican legislators are threatening to impose a government shutdown over the budget or to nix a rise in the borrowing limit and force a debt default if Democrats and Obama do not knuckle under opposition calls to slash spending for the health care law. Much of that law begins taking effect later this year and early in 2014. House Republicans have already taken 40 votes to repeal or cut funding for the overhaul, moves that were never taken up in the Senate and would have been vetoed out of hand by Obama.

“We’re going to have a whale of a fight,’’ Rep. John Boehner, the speaker of the House, said at a fundraising appearance this month for a fellow Republican in Idaho.

The health-care law forces all Americans to buy health insurance – offering government subsidies to low income citizens – and Republicans philosophically view that as wrongful government intrusion into private decision-making. That part of the law is what will help finance its regulations that will provide insurance to tens of millions of Americans who now are uninsured or who can’t buy coverage because they already have a medical condition. Some Republicans are so opposed to such programs that they would like to see major cuts in the government’s long-standing Social Security old-age pension system and the government-run Medicare health insurance program for Americans over age 65.

“I’ve made it clear that we’re not going to increase the debt limit without cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase in the debt limit,’’ Boehner said. “The president doesn’t think this is fair, thinks I’m being difficult to deal with. But I’ll say this: It may be unfair but what I’m trying to do here is to leverage the political process to produce more change than what it would produce if left to its own devices.’’

While more moderate Republicans in both legislative chambers are believed to oppose such drastic tactics, those in leadership positions such as Boehner are seen as captive to the growing power of the socalled tea party faction in their party, which is made up of legislators determined to cut taxes, shrink government spending and eliminate federal indebtedness.

That’s because the most extreme elements in both parties hold outsized power in determining which candidates make their way onto the ballot. Candidates for Congress win a spot on the ballot in their states and districts through success in primary elections. Votes in those candidate-selecting elections are overwhelmingly cast by the most conservative Republicans, even though they might be a minority of the electorate. That reality forces even some of the most moderate Republican to adopt hard-line positions to fend off primary election challenges.

Return to top