6 Illegal Immigrants Busted In 91,000 Plant N.F. Pot Farm

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6 Illegal Immigrants Busted In 91,000 Plant N.F. Pot Farm

Postby Todd » Tue Jun 28, 2011 2:39 am

After the bust, huge pot plantation sits empty in Wallowa County, but still an environmental headache

Published: June 26, 2011, Updated: Monday, June 27, 2011
By Richard Cockle, The Oregonian

ENTERPRISE -- Like a Wild West ghost town, the biggest illicit marijuana plantation in Oregon's history is now empty and abandoned in a rattlesnake-infested mountain canyon.

Police removed or destroyed 91,000 marijuana plants, ranging from seedlings to 10 inches tall in a June 15 raid. At maturity, police say the pot could have had a street value of $227 million. Six armed growers remained behind bars today facing federal narcotics charges.

Next begins the daunting task of removing piles of trash, camping gear, 54-pound bags of chemical fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides at the Wallowa County site. The work has fallen to the U.S. Forest Service.

"It's going to be very difficult," said Ken Gephardt, a district ranger for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Enterprise.

He wore a hard hat to make the 2 1/2-hour hike into the canyon with a drug task force agent last week. "There were rocks rolling the whole time we were going in that canyon," he said. "It's steeper than all get-out."

Gephardt is assembling a team of specialists to assess the environmental damage and plan the cleanup. One concern, he said, is that some of the fertilizer and insecticides might be toxic and dangerous to handle. Chemicals found in other remote drug plantations have been manufactured out of the country and banned in the United States, authorities say.

The Wildcat Creek plantation was discovered by bear hunters who notified police. Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen organized a multi-agency raid that included an Oregon State Police SWAT team and air support from the Oregon National Guard.

More than a week later, miles of black plastic drip-irrigation lines, propane bottles, cook stoves, tents, primitive furniture, clothing, bags of rice, beans, corn tortillas and fertilizer still littered the ground beneath a sheltering canopy of Ponderosa pines, firs and cottonwoods.

Wildcat Creek, an anadromous steelhead stream, appeared cloudy in the still pools beside the plantation, raising the possibility that it may have been contaminated by fertilizers or insecticides.

Another challenge for cleanup crews: The growers may have been using the site for several summers with no sanitation facilities.

"I can't personally say I saw a single latrine," Gephardt said.

Yet another environmental dilemma: The growers carved terraces into the side of the ravine to make it easier to cultivate and irrigate the plants and possibly to create level places for their camps. Workers will have to remove the terraces.

The growers also cut hundreds of trees to open the canyon bottom to sunlight for the plants and pounded trails through dense, jungle-like forest to go from garden to garden. Where the plants used to grow, craters now cover the landscape after law enforcement crews pulled up the crop.

The plantation is part of an epidemic of large marijuana gardens developed in the U.S. by Mexican "drug trafficking organizations," as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration calls them. The business model, authorities say, involves trimming delivery costs to American pot consumers by side-stepping the need to smuggle the marijuana across an international border.

"The grow sites are getting larger and larger all the time," said Chris Gibson, director of a federal program that targets high-intensity drug trafficking areas.

"This grow probably illustrates a trend that is continuing," he said. "This one is huge, and it is in an area where we haven't found a lot of activity."

In 2009 and 2010, police across the country seized more than 10 million marijuana plants in each year, up from 5 million in 2005, said Scott Hoernke, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, D.C.

The Wildcat Creek plantation dwarfs the biggest grows found previously in Oregon: 33,185 plants in Jackson County in 2006; 32,176 plants in Jackson County in 2007 and 23,000 plants in Grant County in 2009.

Despite primitive conditions and remote locations, outdoor marijuana grows are sophisticated enterprises. Police say the traffickers study Internet maps of isolated areas on public lands with good water sources, then send out scouts for a first-hand look. Suitable growing spots often are used year after year.

Growers sometimes return to productive sites within a year of a raid and resume operations as if nothing happened.

Seedlings are started in greenhouses and driven to the national forests or high desert plantations at night. They're hand-carried in plastic potting containers to the plantations. Growers are resupplied weekly by drivers who leave groceries and other necessities at pre-arranged spots, to be carried on foot into the plantations.

The growers, usually Mexican nationals, take different routes when they leave the plantations to avoid creating beaten paths that might lead someone to the gardens, police say.

The phenomenon of giant outdoor grows appears to be spreading out of the Northwest and California, Hoernke said. "We are seeing them in the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast," he said.

Growers usually are armed, authorities say, and the ones at the Wildcat Creek plantation had a 9mm Uzi long-barreled gun and two semi-automatic pistols. Shoot-outs with police and citizens are comparatively rare, but Jackson County sheriff's deputies last August shot and killed a shotgun-wielding man guarding a marijuana plantation north of Sams Valley. A second man fled, disappearing on foot into the woods.

With law enforcement spread thin, "There is a definite need for people to be on the lookout when they are out there" in Oregon's backcountry, Gibson said.

He advised: Back away and notify police if you see anything unusual.

-- Richard Cockle

http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-north ... _head.html
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