2011-07-28 / Front Page

Secret marijuana fields on public property a growing problem, authorities say

By Sylvie Belmond

WEED OUT—A park ranger carries away one of 3,500 marijuana plants recently discovered at a site in the Santa Monica Mountains. 
Courtesy National Park Service WEED OUT—A park ranger carries away one of 3,500 marijuana plants recently discovered at a site in the Santa Monica Mountains. Courtesy National Park Service Park rangers announced the seizure of more than 3,500 marijuana plants over a 9-acre swath in the heart of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area last week. The pot discovery was one of three in the region during past month.

The previous week, authorities reported finding a pair of pot cultivation sites in the Los Padres National Forest in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Lauren Newman, spokesperson for the National Park Service, said the plots found in the Santa Monica Mountains were scattered across a 9.6-acre area near Zuma and Trancas canyons, south of Mulholland Highway.

In June, a ranger on a routine patrol found black plastic hosing in a creek. Other rangers arrived on the scene and discovered several marijuana grow sites. A team of rangers and firefighters worked for about two weeks to haul away nearly a ton of trash and marijuana plants.

“Because it’s so labor intensive to find and clean up these sites it’s an interagency effort,” Newman said.

Although it was the first growth site found in the Santa Monica Mountains this season, Newman said marijuana cultivation remains an ongoing problem in the open spaces.

Authorities seized a pot farm in the national park in 2009. In 2010 officials found four marijuana sites within parkland belonging to the state and county.

The cannabis growing season runs from April through November. Rangers conduct regular patrols in remote parkland areas throughout the summer and fall to curtail growing efforts and prevent damage to the environment.

There were no arrests in connection with the marijuana cultivation site north of Malibu, but authorities are conducting an investigation to determine who’s responsible for the farm and whether it’s connected with other growth sites, Newman said.

A regional problem

In June, Ventura County authorities reported finding a large marijuana operation in the Los Padres National Forest north of Ojai, and nearly 68,500 marijuana plants were eradicated. The discovery was a Ventura County record, authorities said.

“The high rainfall this year has produced optimum growing conditions in the mountains,” Sgt. Mike Horne of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement.

While nobody was arrested in connection with the Los Padres pot, Ventura County narcotics investigators discovered several campsites with an “enormous” amount of trash. They also found weapons and the possibility of poaching. The evidence is being examined.

Last week, authorities also seized nearly 18,400 marijuana plants on the Santa Barbara County side of the Los Padres National Forest. No arrests were made in that incident either.

Officials said marijuana plantations usually occur in remote and hard-to-access park locations, away from designated trails. Pot farmers can be armed and often place booby traps near their crops, park officials say. Park visitors are advised not to stray from marked trails.

Signs of cultivation include drip irrigation lines lying near streams and supplies that are stockpiled in unusual locations.

“If suspicious activity is found, please notify law enforcement as soon as possible,” Horne advises.

National Park Service Superintendent Woody Smeck said marijuana cultivation remains a growing problem in the Santa Monica Mountains and other parklands across the country.

“The environmental damage caused by marijuana cultivation in otherwise pristine natural areas costs approximately $12,000 per acre to clean up,” Smeck said.

Fertilizer, trash, herbicides, pesticides, rodent fencing and two miles of plastic water hose were found at the Santa Monica Mountain growth site south of Mulholland Highway. Water was being diverted from a nearby creek to irrigate the plants, and native vegetation had been chopped down to make room for the plants.

To fight pot growers, the National Park Service began receiving additional funding in 2009 through a bill introduced by Sen. Diane Feinstein. The funds increased the agency’s ability to deny marijuana growers access to the Santa Monica Mountains and other park areas, officials say.

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