Forest Service homes in on pot gardens

As the number of marijuana gardens found in national forests in California grows, federal officials on Thursday detailed a new eradication strategy that adds agents and emphasizes long-term investigations.

"Without a doubt, illegal drug trafficking is the No. 1 priority today in the U.S. Forest Service," U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said Thursday during a visit to Fresno.

About 80% of the marijuana-growing operations in national forests are found in California, officials said.

In 2006, about 250 garden sites were found on national forest lands in the state, said Ron Pugh, special agent in charge of the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Region.

That number is expected nearly to double this year, said Pugh, who introduced the strategy plan.

Rey was in Fresno for a planned helicopter ride to a rugged mountain site in the Sierra National Forest to witness an eradication raid of a large marijuana garden found growing earlier this week.

Both Rey's helicopter trip and the raid were called off because of bad weather.

Rey said that about 99% of the growing operations are being carried out by illegal immigrants from Mexico, and most of the operations are linked to Mexican drug cartels.

While national forests and other public lands in California have long been favorites for the drug traffickers, Rey said, marijuana gardens are now also being found in Oregon, Washington, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky and Hawaii.

Rey visited Fresno at the invitation of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, who said he is seeking different ways to bring more attention to the drug-trafficking problems on public lands in his district.

"Illegal drug production and trafficking on public lands has become more common and increasingly dangerous," Nunes said. "Men, women and children who are enjoying the recreational opportunities afforded by our national forests should not be faced with this criminal threat."

Under Pugh's plan, a new special unit with a supervisor and seven agents will be created and assigned full-time to interagency drug task forces across the state.

One of the agents will work closely with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration marijuana task force in San Francisco.

In addition, 12 agents will be assigned full-time to drug trafficking operations only. Overall, Pugh said, the plan means his investigative unit will almost double in size during this calendar year.

The focus on long-term investigations is important, he said, because it will narrow investigations to only those few cases that investigators believe can lead them to the leaders of the drug traffickers.

"Given the amount of time required to conduct an effective investigation of these crimes, it is simply impossible to do so for all sites," he said.

Another important part of the plan, Pugh said, is site reclamation -- cleaning up drug sites where trash, chemicals, hazardous materials, weapons, ammunition and other items harmful to the environment and dangerous to the public are left behind.

The plan calls for education and public awareness campaigns on this issue and also seeks help from volunteer groups and other agencies to clean up the sites.