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Wild West: Drug cartels thrive in US national parks

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2003



SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, CALIF.

Even Br'er Rabbit couldn't make it through this briar patch. With their M-16 rifles and their backpacks snagging on every bramble, three national-park rangers in commando gear spit out mosquitoes on a pathless mountainside of manzanita thickets and dense brush. Gun barrels raised to give each other cover, they advance using hand signals, pausing only to sip water in the 100-degree heat and gasp for air through mesh masks.

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After 2-1/2 hours, one mile, and a thousand-foot gain in altitude, they come across evidence of large-scale activity that officials call the biggest threat to national parks since their creation over a century ago. Beside an abandoned camp scattered with trash and human waste, lie empty bags of fertilizer, gardening tools, irrigation tubing - and spent rifle casings. Illegal marijuana farming, once the province of small-time growers, has become big business on the nation's most visited public land: national parks.

"This is massive-scale agriculture that is threatening the very mission of the national parks, which is to preserve the natural environment in perpetuity and provide for safe public recreation," says Bill Tweed, chief naturalist at Sequoia National Park. "[Growers] are killing wildlife, diverting streams, introducing nonnative plants, creating fire and pollution hazards, and bringing the specter of violence. For the moment, we are failing both parts of our mission, and that is tragic."

For decades, park rangers have stumbled into small cannabis stands. But now, desperation and opportunity have combined to move larger-scale illicit marijuana farming to Sequoia, Glacier, Big Bend, and other jewels of the American landscape.

'Now there is the specter of violence'

Since the late 1990s, marijuana cultivation has escalated dramatically in the more remote public areas such as national forests - many of which permit mining, forestry, grazing, and other activities - and areas under the stewardship of the Bureau of Land Management. Marijuana seizure in California national forests has jumped tenfold, from 45,054 plants in 1994 to 495,000 plants last year.

But since Sept. 11, drug farming has increasingly spread from remote forests to more-public national parks. Tighter security on US borders has raised the incentive for domestic cultivation. That makes for more armed growers - and potential clashes with those traipsing into the wilderness for nature at its most pristine.

As well as growing more common, the enterprise has become more organized. International drug cartels - made up largely of Mexican nationals - seem especially drawn to the bounty. And their harvests can be huge: last year, officials here seized the biggest stash of all, with 34,000 plants in five locations at an estimated street value of $140 million. Complicating the task for law enforcement is the strain on resources. Park budgets have tightened, and many of the available rangers have been shifted to more popular haunts.

"The most [visitors] used to worry about is running into a grizzly bear. Now there is the specter of violence by a masked alien toting an AK-47," says David Barna, chief spokesman for the National Park Service (NPS). He and others say the problem is national, but most pronounced in California, Utah, and Arkansas, and in parks with international borders such as Big Bend in Texas and Glacier in Montana.

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