There was a time when foraging bears presented the greatest danger to the hikers and fishermen absorbing the natural beauty of Sequoia National Park in central California.
But those days are long gone, in the view of Laura Whitehouse, central valley program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association. The bears have been superseded in the past few years by camo-wearing guards flashing AK-47s and trip wires attached to shotgun triggers, all to protect the burgeoning marijuana crops popping up on public lands.
Mexican drug cartels, finding it increasingly difficult to smuggle their product across the southern border, are using remote areas in several national parks, primarily in California, to grow marijuana, she and others told Congress. And proceeds from that lucrative trade are invested in methamphetamine labs and cocaine-processing plants, resulting in an illicit multibillion-dollar business.
The dangers are manifold, Whitehouse told the House Subcommittee on National Parks, which began looking into the problem on Thursday: The drugs present a danger to the customers. And the measures taken by the cartels to protect their investment are depriving innocent individuals who simply want to enjoy the great outdoors.
“Park Service rangers have heard of hikers and fishermen being chased at gunpoint after inadvertently stumbling into a marijuana garden or meeting one of these guards on the trail,” Whitehouse said. “The cartels also use booby traps to secure their marijuana gardens _ shotguns with trip lines carefully hidden and positioned to shoot an unknowing victim in the face.”
The appropriation of national parkland for the purpose of cultivating marijuana, according to Karen Taylor-Goodrich, associate director for visitor and resource protection for the National Park Service, is “a truly significant and extensive problem” that the agency is attempting to address despite a dearth of resources.
“While we are attempting to aggressively quantify the overall problem, how much marijuana is being cultivated and the extent to which these organizations operate on parks lands is not fully known,” Taylor-Goodrich said. “Our intelligence indicates that most of these cultivation operations were conducted by a small number of Mexican national organizations.”
Of the 388 national-park units, Taylor-Goodrich estimated that 12 to 15 have what can be termed a cultivation problem. Most are in California. Yosemite National Park, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore “all have drug-trafficking organizations working within and around their boundaries.”
The National Parks Conservation Association reports that rangers also confront illegal drug cultivation and/or trafficking at Organ Pipe Cactus and Coronado national monuments in Arizona and the Amistad National Recreation Area and Padre Island National Seashore in Texas.
Tulare County (Calif.) Supervisor Allen Ishida, whose county is the gateway into Sequoia National Park, said the region “has experienced a rapid growth in drug-trafficking organizations using our local area to cultivate, process and transport illegal drugs” since the 1990s. In 2004, the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department located and eradicated 161,624 live marijuana plants _ 87 percent of which were found on federal lands.
Any effort to eradicate the illicit crop, Ishida said, will require greater cooperation among local, state and federal authorities as well as additional resources. Tulare County will spend $300,000 this year _ about half from the federal government _ to “try to address a problem that goes into the billions of dollars.”
“The parks are in desperate need of increased backcountry patrols and helicopter time to patrol and conduct surveillance of these hard-to-find growing areas,” Whitehouse said. “Without further investigation of marijuana activities within the parks, park resources _ as well as visitors and park rangers _ are in danger.”
The National Park Service is “doing the best they can with the limited resources they have.” Her group, the National Parks Conservation Association, is asking Congress to appropriate an additional $600 million annually to address the system’s chronic funding shortfalls. Whitehouse warned that any across-the-board cuts imposed by lawmakers would hinder efforts to combat drug trafficking in the parks.
“Until Congress and the administration address the parks’ critical funding needs, the safety of rangers and visitors, and the preservation of our heritage, will remain at risk,” Whitehouse said.
(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com)