Walters: Commercial pot-growing sites pose dangers in Wisconsin's forests

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Steven Walters
Monday, September 30, 2013

CLAM LAKE -- Two years after it took more than 100 law officers and National Guard helicopters to remove more than 9,000 marijuana plants, and airlift out garbage that included pesticide containers and human waste, chunks of the Chequamegon National Forest floor are still scarred.

On a recent reporting mission for WisconsinEye, officials documented the growing—and dangerous—practice of illegal marijuana growing operations in federal and state forests, and on private land.

Before 2008, no illegal commercial marijuana operation found in Wisconsin had more than a few hundred plants. Since 2008, raids on 12 major sites have destroyed about 90,000 plants, said Jay Smith, a veteran special agent for the state Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation.

Impressive. But just numbers.

Bathe in mosquito spray (soon washed away by sweat), hike uphill more than a half-mile through forest and ankle-level muck west of County Highway GG, and you’ll find:

-- It’s easy to stumble over the pockets where growers dug just deep enough for two plants, sticks and green string they tied to the plants to straighten them.

 -- When they cleared an area, growers piled the brush in a circle around it to deter hikers, hunters, anglers and other unwanted visitors, forcing them to go around that plot of marijuana plants.

-- Small trees lashed together to form crude shelters—“hootches,” law officers and U.S. Forest Service workers call them—are still there. “Here’s where they built a small cooking fire,” veteran Forest Service officer Jennifer Rabuck observed.

-- Small-limb drying racks used after marijuana is harvested, but before growers haul it to a pickup point, still hang.

-- The detritus of large commercial marijuana growing—pesticide containers, for example, and the bottle of an over-the-counter product to make water drinkable—can still be retrieved from the forest floor.

How sophisticated are Wisconsin’s commercial marijuana growers?

Workers at the Clam Lake site west of County GG—there also was a site on the east side of the highway—had automatic weapons, used plastic pipes to set up an irrigation system, picked up supplies at pre-arranged times and places before 5 a.m., hauled generators and all supplies on their backs, planted the marijuana in May and harvested it by the end of October.

Illegal marijuana sites have been found in forests in most states, Smith said.

But those who run major “drug trafficking organizations”—or international cartels—grow in Wisconsin because it has so many isolated forests and water resources. They also save shipping costs by growing it so close to the Twin Cities and Chicago, where it is often sold, Smith said.

Deer hunters discovered the Clam Lake-area growing operations in November 2010. After confirming that growers returned for the next season, hundreds of federal, state and local officers surrounded and raided it at daybreak in August 2011.

Smith said the officers who busted the operation risked Lyme Disease, heat stroke and dehydration for a few hours, but the Clam Lake-area growers—young men from Mexico, most of whom were in the U.S. illegally—faced those health threats for months.

“They live out there,” even sometimes growing gardens of cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers, Smith said.

One grower was caught on the first day of the Clam Lake raid; others were arrested when they showed up the next day. All got 10-year mandatory federal prison sentences, Smith said.

Commercial marijuana growing operations in Wisconsin have become so common that the state Justice and Natural Resources departments now warn anyone in forests to watch for illegal drug operations:

“What to look for? Signs of summer camps, such as huts, tents or makeshift structures. Watering jugs, chemical containers, gardening tools. Disturbed vegetation, including abnormal cuttings or clearings.

“What to do? Back out of the area. Don’t enter the site, as it could be dangerous. Note what you’ve seen. Write down details of GPS coordinates. Call local law enforcement or the Wisconsin DNR—You may be eligible for a reward.”

“We consider (growers) dangerous,” Smith said.

Brian C. Knepper, administrative warden for DNR’s Bureau of Law Enforcement, told this story: A Marinette County marijuana plot was found after growers nailed a handmade “No Fishing” sign to a tree and told anglers to leave. They were protecting 12,300 plants on private land.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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