Rangers Ask Help With Pot Gardens

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SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK -- Police and park and forest rangers pleaded
their case for more drug enforcement money and resources to a trio of
congressmen Friday morning.

The hearing at Sequoia National Park's Wuksachi Lodge offered some
surprises for the lawmakers and shed light on bureaucratic obstacles
facing local, state and federal narcotics officers as they combat a
burgeoning problem of marijuana and methamphetamine being produced in
national forests and parks and on other public lands.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, hosted the hearing, joined by Reps. Doug
Ose, R-Sacramento, and Mark Souder, R-Indiana.

Ose is chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Energy
Policy, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs, and Souder heads the
Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources Subcommittee.

The hearing was timely for officials from Sequoia National Park, the
neighboring Sequoia National Forest and Tulare County. Last month, Ose
noted, nearly 19,000 marijuana plants were discovered in the park and
eradicated.

And in recent days, sheriff's deputies helped rip out more than 72,000
marijuana plants on the Tule River Indian Reservation in the Sierra
Nevada foothills of southern Tulare County.

Mexican drug cartels are believed responsible for many of the big pot
gardens and meth "super labs" turning up in recent years in the Valley.

"This area is at the forefront of the national battle," Ose said.
"Visitors and rangers are now in grave danger of being killed or
injured by marijuana growers armed with AK-47s, handguns and machetes."

Tulare County Sheriff Bill Wittman, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency
Special Agent Stephen Delgado and state Bureau of Narcotics
Enforcement Agent Val Jimenez were joined by park Superintendent
Richard Martin and forest Supervisor Art Gaffrey in touting the
cooperation that their agencies enjoy in their efforts to seek and
destroy pot gardens on the public lands.

But, they agreed, more could be done if more money and resources were
available.

Wittman cited the work of the Valley's High Intensity Drug Trafficking
Area task force -- a joint project of federal, state and local law
enforcement -- in finding and raiding Valley meth labs.

"We need more resources and a more united effort against marijuana,"
Wittman said. "HIDTA is showing what we can do when we have the resources."

Delgado said of the 148 DEA agents he supervises in Northern
California, only eight are assigned to marijuana eradication.

"All they're doing is 'whack and stack,' " he said, because there's
not enough manpower to investigate deeper into the Mexican cartels.

Most suspects arrested in connection with large mountain pot gardens
are illegal immigrants from Mexico, hired for a pittance by cartels to
tend the crops.

"The people we arrest are just laborers," Wittman said. "We don't
believe we're getting anywhere near the cartels or
profiteers."

Ose, whose subcommittee oversees national parks and forests, and
Souder, who heads the subcommittee that handles narcotics issues, came
into the hearing familiar with the issues.

But Ose noted pictures of raided gardens that showed bags of
fertilizer used to nourish the pot plants and was dumbfounded to learn
from Martin that park officials did not check vehicles for such
pot-garden staples as fertilizer and plastic tubing.

"You wouldn't expect to see fertilizer, Clorox or plastic pipe coming
into the park," Ose said, adding that he plans to explore forging a
rule that would expand the ability of park rangers to inspect vehicles.

Souder expressed surprise at the scale of the gardens found in the
park and forest -- a scale far larger than what he has seen in his
home state of Indiana.

Souder also was taken aback when Wittman, Jimenez and other law
officers testified that they don't have the capability to link up with
the U.S. Border Patrol's database of illegal immigrants to run
identity checks on suspects arrested at pot gardens.

"I was surprised that the Border Patrol doesn't share with the local
sheriff and state narcotics, that they don't have access to that
database," Souder said. He added that he expects that to be among the
first issues to be resolved, as his subcommittee directly oversees
agencies that fall under the Department of Homeland Security,
including the Border Patrol.

"That will happen right away," he said.

Souder also reflected on testimony that the DEA's Northern California
efforts were not being coordinated with the Office of National Drug
Control Policy's marijuana initiatives.

He predicted his questions on those two cooperation issues would
likely nudge the agencies toward more cooperation on their own rather
than waiting for him or another congressman to try to deal with it via
legislation.

"Sometimes," he said, "it doesn't take a bill to make something good
happen."


Pubdate: Sat, 11 Oct 2003
Source: Fresno Bee, The (CA)
Webpage: http://www.fresnobee.com/local/story/7576963p-8486163c.html
Copyright: 2003 The Fresno Bee
Contact: letters@fresnobee.com
Website: Central Valley Breaking News, Sports & Crime | Fresno Bee