John Larson: A team of a dozen officers is on the move in the early morning darkness. On a two-hour drive, they’re headed to a rendezvous point at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains, a gateway to an exploding number of marijuana gardens hidden in the wild California country.
Chris Jackson: The vast majority of these grows are operated by the Mexican drug trafficking organizations.
John Larson: We’re driving with Chris Jackson, the regional commander of CAMP, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting. With 110 federal, state, and local agencies involved, CAMP is the largest law enforcement task force in the United States. Up ahead, a landing zone has been cleared high in the San Bernardino mountains. Over the next 36 hours, this team will find and destroy five separate marijuana growing operations in Riverside County worth almost $90 million. The team will fly in suspended beneath helicopters in a long used attack procedure called short…but if there’s a problem while in flight, the men will not be left hanging.
The parachute itself sits underneath on the belly of the aircraft. Because we’re going to have human bodies at the bottom of this line.
John Larson: The first flight in..the marijuana is growing about two miles away, concealed in hundreds of square miles on federal land. Hidden, but not well enough. The short haul is a fast attack. Officers, hanging in the air, sometimes a thousand feet off the ground. But the technique is chosen not for its speed, but its efficiency.
One absolute necessity in marijuana farming? Water.
One thing they can’t carry enough of is water. It’s amazing how resourceful they are and tapping into springs and building reservoirs. Within moments, we enter the grove. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of marijuana plants. As tougher enforcement on the Mexican border has made it more difficult for smugglers, the size of the California plot crop has grown.
John Larson: There are scattered, hidden campsites. Abandoned very recently and in a hurry.
Chris Jackson: You can see they’ve got the little propane stove for preparing some of their food. All their equipment. We’ve seen a lot of these bottles, obviously very dangerous to have in the forest.
John Larson: There is also ammunition and a rifle. This officer, who we disguised because he works undercover, says this time, which is harvest time, is the most dangerous.
We had two times when we were engaged by growers.
John Larson: Engaged? You mean shot at?
John Larson: A marijuana grow like this can steal 5,000 gallons a day or more from a local spring. And more worrisome, the growers use banned, illegal pesticides brought in from Mexico, they kill wildlife and poison the water table. And the cost to clean all this up? $10,000-12,000 per acre. 9,000 acres of public lands have already been involved this year, so do the math. That’s $109 million just to clean it up.
John Larson: Last year, the CAMP team destroyed a record 2.9 million marijuana plants in California. This year, they’ve already destroyed more than 4 million. Although they’ve arrested hundreds of growers, today’s escape.
John Larson: We can come in from five different sides at once and there’s always going to be a sixth trail that goes off seemingly to nowhere. Well, they know where it goes because they’ve lived here for the past 6 months. There’s actually four separate grows.
John Larson: The CAMP team this morning consists of DEA agents, state Fish and Game officers, Riverside County Sherriff’s Deputies, and California Department of Justice Investigators.
As always, beware of suspects. We’ve overflown them. That doesn’t mean there won’t be suspects in there.
John Larson: 7 miles from basecamp, across seemingly impassible mountains, the team has found another grow site.
John Larson: More than half the marijuana grown in the United States is grown in California, which now ranks with nations like Morocco and Afghanistan as a world leader in marijuana production. The area is secured, the growers – again – have vanished.
This is another one of their living accommodations; it’s also one of their water supply services.
John Larson: Since 2011, more and more of the marijuana has been grown on public land. That’s state park land, National Forest land. Here in Riverside County, 92 percent of the pot eradicated is coming off of public land. The team is here less than 30 minutes, when a mystery develops.
It’s got water pressure in it. And we believe it’s going to end up somewhere on a ranch northwest from us.
John Larson: The waterline feeding the pot is pressurized to the point that deputies suspect it might come from a fire main or a private ranch.
See that looking like a snake?
John Larson: After an hour long half mile search, the line leads onto a ranch. The pot growers have dug deep, tapping directly to the ranch’s well.
Here’s our tap. They did a sloppy job.
John Larson: Chris Jackson and his team removed 15,000 plants on this day worth $60 million.
John Larson: Is this a decisive victory in the marijuana war? Of course not. But Chris and the men and women of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting know that this year, they have already taken more than $4 billion largely out of the pockets of the Mexican drug cartels. And that, they can live with.
John Larson: For “SoCal Connected,” I’m John Larson, near Thompson Mountain in Riverside County.
In 2009, "SoCal Connected" embedded with a marijuana eradication team in the San Bernardino Mountains to discuss the problem of illegal grow sites. The problem persists. We're reairing a version of the segment again, while exploring the continuing issues on the website.
Still a Problem, But Not Everywhere
When it comes to illegal marijuana grow sites in national parks, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks had the worst problem. Now? Not so much. Over the past two years, rangers have not discovered a single plant, a drastic difference over the previous decade.
"We do a lot of early season operations and high profile patrols on canyon roads," Todd Bonds, Marijuana Interdiction Group supervisor for the parks, told "SoCal Connected" reporter Sarah Parvini. "We discourage them from even starting to plant because we want to reduce resource damage before it starts."
But in national forests, illegal grow sites continue to be discovered and eradicated. 114,095 marijuana plants were found in San Bernardino National Forest in 2013, along with 45,331 feet of waterlines and 22,020 pounds of infrastructure. Citing that data, KCET.org columnist Char Miller -- he's also the Director of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College -- argues that legalizing marijuana in the U.S. (not just Colorado and Washington) could "meaningfully disrupt growers' brutal impact on the land."
What Can You Do?
Besides a patrol strategy, what's also helped Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks extinguish the pot problem have been reports by the public. If you're out in a forest and come upon a marijuana cultivation site, officials urge you to back out immediately making as little noise as possible and taking note of your location, never engage with growers, and find a safe spot to report the site. KCET's blog SoCal Wanderer has more details.