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War in the woods

11/11/2010

Three years ago, the California Fish and Game Wardens asked me to make a documentary about them; to let the state and the world know they have a serious problem.

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California has the lowest ratio of wardens per capita of any state. One consequence is a $100 million a year black market in wildlife trafficking. A second consequence is that public wildlands are being taken over by international drug cartels growing marijuana in the woods.

I learned a lot riding along with game wardens. The preconceived image of someone dressed in green who spends their day blissfully checking fish sizes and limits of ducks was transformed. Wardens enforce not only wildlife law, they also have full powers to enforce criminal, civil, and traffic law, as well as search and rescue and aid wildlife biology. They also do their own CSI, and often patrol alone without back-up in remote areas where most people are armed with guns or knives.

We rode along on compliance checks of hunters and fishermen, but also busts of street gangs, organized crime rings, and drug addicts. These wardens were confronting and arresting people solo, or maybe with a partner, in circumstances that other law enforcement officers would want a dozen back-ups.

One of the most memorable adventures we went on was riding along on a bust of two marijuana grows in Foothills Regional Park in Palo Alto, Calif., with Lt. John Nores, Jr.

This was my initiation into a world of violence to man and the land that I had not expected. One garden with 10,000 plants was half a mile into deep brush, but another was hidden in a thicket within 50 yards of busy Page Mill Road, and a couple hundred yards away from expensive homes with views of San Francisco Bay and Stanford Stadium.

The garden was ringed with chicken wire and rat poison. Fertilizer bags, many with Spanish labels contained chemicals not allowed here, were strewn everywhere. There was a spider web of black plastic irrigation pipes with drip timers among a 6-foot tall bright green crop worth a cool million bucks. Luckily this garden did not have booby traps -- pitfalls with sharp stakes, trip lines attached to shotguns, and/or bear traps.

In April, growers move into lands like this looking for locations with nearby water sources, and thick stands of bushes like manzanita. They cut out the understory plants and plant marijuana, leaving the overhead canopy to camouflage them from aerial detection. Hiking into grow locations, sometimes several miles from a road, the growers carry heavy loads of propane tanks, plastic irrigation pipes, camping gear, food, garden supplies, and weapons.

As the plants begin to germinate, streams are dammed and miles of black plastic irrigation pipelines are laid out, connecting the lucrative crop with pools of water seasoned with fertilizers and pesticides to create a cocktail that makes the plants grow rapidly. Deer and bear that wander into the gardens sometimes become meals. The growers are kept supplied with food and water by carefully planned drops. Piles of cans and garbage begin to accumulate.

As the plants get bigger, backpack pesticide sprayers, carefully painted green for camouflage, are brought into play. Many of the chemical cocktails sprayed are not legal in the U.S.

August through October, the harvest takes place. The Forest Service and BLM now warn hikers, hunters and fishermen to be on the lookout for marijuana gardens, as the growers are armed and can be violent. Two hunters were shot and killed by growers last year.

The first major cartel gardens were found in the Sierras in the late 1990s. This year the inter-agency marijuana eradication team, CAMP, took out over four million plants. Despite the best of efforts, the number of grows busted increases every year, as do shootings. Five growers were killed in eight shootouts this year. Law enforcement says they can only get about 10 percent of what is being grown. Apparently increased border security has promoted increased growing weed on California soil.

California is the epicenter of this problem, but it's spreading from Mexico to Alaska and Coast to Coast. This summer warnings were issued to hikers and hunters in the Great Lakes region and the Appalachians to be on the lookout for cartel pot gardens in forests and parks.

You really can't fathom this problem until you set foot in one of these grows. To try to help people grasp the seriousness of the problem Warden Lt. John Nores, Jr. and I have just come out with a book "War In The Woods: Combating the Marijuana Cartels On Our Public Lands." It's available through Amazon.com and any bookstore. The following is a taste of the world you will enter through John's eyes. The nicknames used in the account are to hide identities of the other brave officers in these details, for obvious reasons.

Selection of Chapter 4 from "War in the Woods"

... Snake was just starting to get up and lead us after the two men when suddenly he and Ranger snapped their rifles up and into the upper edge of the garden. Without saying a word, Cheetah and I dropped back to the ground and slowly slipped our backpacks off. With our Glock pistols at the low ready, we knew a mope was somewhere ahead of us in the garden and close. Cheetah and I were on full alert as we watched and waited to see who was in range of being chased down and just a few seconds from being caught.

The grower had no idea we were on the trail ahead of him as he bounded between rows of waist-high marijuana plants. All four of us up front had turned to our right and were now kneeling down frozen and facing the mope head on. Snake and Ranger had their AR15's shouldered and were looking for weapons on the man as he approached our position, now just 25 yards away and closing. Dressed in blue jeans, a drab T-shirt and a baseball cap, the thin and wiry man continued toward us, still oblivious to the four operators waiting so close ahead.

Both Snake and Ranger were positioned below and out of our way on the edge of the trail. This allowed Cheetah and I a straight shot at our suspect if a foot chase started. At this rate, the mope was going to walk right into our team, still not identifying us in our camouflage.

I leaned slightly forward, placing the majority of my weight on my left foot in front of me while simultaneously planting my right foot behind me, preparing my body for the imminent sprint. Just a few feet ahead of me and true to his operator name, my partner was crouched and moving up and down slowly like the big predator cat getting ready to tackle his prey. He raised and bent his arms along the sides of his chest, and continued to spring up and down slowly, preparing for his sprint just seconds away. Shakes of excitement ripped through our bodies and minds as the mope closed the gap, now just 20 yards away.

When the man reached the 15-yard mark, Cheetah and I were half a second from breaking concealment and blasting forward to tackle him. Before doing so and barely in time to stop our pursuit, we heard Ranger whisper frantically, "He's got a long gun slung on his right shoulder!" This statement immediately changed the mindset of what would happen next. Cheetah and I raised our Glock pistols up on target towards the mope as we realized no chase or tackle was going to happen now. Not with a firearm on the suspect. Thank heaven for Ranger's attentive eyes and picking up the weapon on this man.

Within a second of Ranger's observation and with the gunman now "danger close" and only 10 yards away, Snake identified us and told the suspect, "Police, stop and put your hands up!" The man's reaction was surreal and unexpected. The mope stopped in his tracks. His eyes widened in shock for just a second before his expression turned vicious. The gunman's brow tightened, his eyes squinted, and the expression on his face turned from shock to anger and we could all see what was about to happen. Even with four guns trained on him, he was not going to back down.

Lasting only a few seconds, the felon's actions dictated our response. With that scowl on his face, the mope swung the shotgun toward our team and started to reach for it. Our hearts were pounding now with anger and shock and just half a second from pressing the triggers on our pistols, Cheetah and I heard a single, loud, high pitched crack ring out and echo deep in the canyon. The mope wailed out a long and loud, "Aigh!!" as a single .223 caliber, 64 grain power point bullet ripped through the center of his chest.

Dropping the shotgun immediately and gripping his chest frantically as if stung by a bee, the mope dropped to his knees before falling on his face and hitting the trail. Snake had engaged the gunman with a single shot, making a perfect center of mass hit to his sternum, to stop him from trying to kill the four of us. Engagement distance was just less than 10 yards. And the fight was not over.

On the ground now, the felon crawled towards the shotgun and grabbed it before trying to engage us with it again. Now we brought the fight to him. The cacophony of two AR15's firing simultaneously in rapid succession at close range was deafening, as Snake and Ranger engaged the felon on the ground. After multiple hits from both operators the gun-fire ceased and the gunman no longer moved. He was finished.

I was surprised when just seconds after the last AR15 rounds were fired, I saw the familiar sight of an M14 flash hider and barrel moving past the right side of my face as Marcos moved past me to fill in and add cover to the fight. Feeling his hand on my right shoulder as this happened and hearing him say, "On your six Trailblazer, and moving to you!" was comforting. Marcos had heard so much gunfire up front and thinking his teammates were in major trouble, he wasted no time moving up to get in the fight and help.

Realizing the gunman was being handled by Snake and Ranger, Cheetah and I directed our pistols further downhill and scanned deeper into the grow with Marcos doing the same with his M14. The two other growers witnessed earlier were still out there, ignored but not forgotten.

We looked up just in time to see both mopes running downhill and away like rabbits. They apparently wanted nothing to do with that action and were leaving their buddy to fend for himself.

The taller of the two growers towered well above the chest-high budded plants. And looking back in our direction as he ran, the mope appeared to be carrying a long gun over his left shoulder. The second man, much shorter than the first, was not looking at anything except the path in front of him, clearly just wanting to get out of the area quickly.

Once we were sure the gunman was not going to move again, Snake conducted a sit-rep (situation report) on the team, having everyone call out their names and indicate if they were "up" or not. "Up" means you are operational with no problems or injuries and good to go.

Immediately following the sit-rep, Snake radioed the QRF, already close and just a few yards behind us on the trail, to come up and cover. Wasting no time and knowing we had two more mopes on the run, Cheetah and I quickly told Snake what we had seen and what direction the mopes were headed.

I told Snake we knew their direction of travel and could cover him to the east if he wanted to head down hill and cut their escape trail below while at the same time clearing that side of the garden. Snake agreed and before the three of us moved out, he directed a secondary team to work down through the western edge of the grow to check and clear that side of the garden. Ranger, Marcos, and Rails comprised that team and were already moving before Snake finished conveying his plan.

With a dead gunman in the middle of the garden, we now had a crime scene to deal with. Not only did we have to clear the immediate area of all threats, we also had to do so without disturbing anything critical to the impending shooting investigation …


You can get a taste of what it's like to be a game warden whose detail is busting marijuana grows through watching the online book trailer. If you want more, starting November 28 in a new reality series on National Geographic called "Wild Justice."
Lt. Nores is one of the lead wardens, and I'm a co-executive producer on the series. You know it's going to be exciting as the production company is Original Productions, which already brings you "Deadliest Catch," "Ice Road Truckers," and "Axmen."

The woods are quiet now for a few brief months until the cycle begins all over again. This is when cleaning up the mess that these cartel gardens takes place, with help from all kinds of volunteer groups. Cartel gardens leave behind mountains of trash; as much as a ton of garbage per acre. (see pics) Cleaning one up can cost $10,000 or more. Sportsmen groups can be invaluable to such clean-ups. Contact your local game wardens and ask if they need help.

Sportsmen have done a wonderful job conserving wildlife habitat. It's the primary reason why we have historic high populations of many game species including deer, bear, wild turkeys, etc. It would be shame to lose it all because we have lost control of law and order on our wildlands.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.

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