Wisconsin Forests Attract Illegal Marijuana Growers

Wisconsin officials are investigating a large-scale marijuana-growing operation on national forest land near Green Bay. Forestry managers say the misuse of public lands results in habitat degradation, which can take years to recover from. They're also warning hunters and campers to be watchful — but not to confront suspected growers for fear of violence. Patty Murray of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

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It's not unusual for illegal marijuana growers in the west to hide their crops in isolated parts of national forests. Now, it seems the problem is spreading east. Last month, authorities made a major bust in Wisconsin - the first time a large-scale pot operation has been discovered on public land there.

From Wisconsin Public Radio, Patty Murray reports.

PATTY MURRAY: Planes routinely fly over remote sections of the national forests looking for illicit plots of marijuana but usually not here in northern Wisconsin.

Mr. TOM TIDWELL (Chief, U.S. Forest Service): Based on what we're seeing, it is changing.

MURRAY: Tom Tidwell is the chief of the Forest Service. The illegal pot harvest season is still under way, but Tidwell says if 2009 is an indicator, it's been a busy year for illegal growers staking out sites in the forests.

Mr. TIDWELL: It's starting to expand across the country, and now, we have located - last year located grow sites in 25 different states. And these are just grow sites that are on the national forests.

MURRAY: State parks and other wildlife areas also seem to be attractive to people wanting to grow illegal crops. That's in part because they can spend up to eight months living in the woods undetected. That was apparently the case in Wisconsin's Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. It's a million and a half acres sprawling across the far reaches of northern Wisconsin. That's about twice the size of Rhode Island.

In mid-August, law enforcement and Forest Service rangers descended on 10 scattered sites. It was the state's largest bust on public land. Fifty thousand pot plants were uprooted. Forest Service official Suzanne Flory says they began surveillance of this forest after a hunter stumbled on what was a small pot garden in the fall of 2008. And that was a lucky break because this forest is just so big.

Ms. SUZANNE FLORY (U.S. Forest Service): That's a huge amount of land. Not a lot of people travel in these areas. These grow sites were found in remote areas that are off the beaten path, and so they have opportunity to be well hidden.

MURRAY: The marijuana harvest season coincides with hunters in the woods scoping out possible deer hunting grounds. Since those growing marijuana can be armed, officials cautioned anyone who comes across a potential site to leave and report it. Besides the potential for a confrontation, Flory says these sites - small and scattered as they are - hurt the forests and the animals living there. Marijuana might grow like a weed, but those cultivating it often push the crops with chemicals.

Ms. FLORY: The damage can range from anywhere from the fertilizers or if they were using any kind of pesticides getting into the water system, which can have long-term implications. It also leaves a scar in the landscape that hopefully will come back naturally over time. It's just - basically, it's an interruption of natural processes on the forest landscape.

MURRAY: Forest chief Tom Tidwell says that pollution is a concern for people who've never even set foot in the forest.

Mr. TIDWELL: Nearly 60 percent of the water in this country, you know, comes off of national forests and grasslands, so even a relatively small site has the potential to have a negative impact on water.

MURRAY: After the bust in the forest, police raided a house believed to be connected with the operation. There, they found a pot processing facility, along with guns, including an AK-47. Twelve men are in custody, and they face multiple federal charges. Meanwhile, the Forest Service says it will be doing more surveillance, flying planes over millions of acres of forestlands, looking for illegal crops.

For NPR News, I'm Patty Murray in Green Bay.

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