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NEWS | Aug. 30, 2011

California Guard joins interagency effort targeting marijuana growers, environmental contaminants

By Air Force Master Sgt. David J. Loeffler California National Guard

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - As hikers, campers and nature enthusiasts enter the Golden State's forests, too few realize the dangers lurking deep within the canopy. The perils they face are not limited to terrain and wildlife; they now face a large number of criminal organizations growing marijuana in California's parks, reserves and public lands. The growers – often armed and dangerous – continue to damage the environment, poison the watershed and escalate their violence.

The "Emerald Triangle," known for decades for its cultivation of high-grade marijuana, was the target for a multi-agency marijuana eradication effort known as Operation Full Court Press in July. The operation targeted large-scale, illegal grow sites in and around the Mendocino National Forest, with participation from 25 local, state and federal agencies. California National Guard Soldiers and Airmen supported Full Court Press with aviation assets, criminal analysis, logistics, IT networks and reclamation efforts.

"One of the California National Guard's most important roles is the planning from the beginning. Bringing all of the agencies and resources together is 90 percent of the mission," said Air Force Maj. Sean Bothelio, intelligence officer for the CNG's Joint Task Force Domestic Support–Counterdrug. "We assist law enforcement agencies by gathering information from traffic stops, suspected grow areas and suspected drop points and generate intelligence reports that can be used to piece it all together."

CNG troops also provided ground tactical support, and CNG aviation assets used multi-spectral imagery to detect water usage and ground disturbances in potential grow sites. Guard members on the ground removed miles of plastic irrigation line and tons of pesticides, fertilizer and garbage from the forest. The trash generated by the growers, much of it hazardous material, was airlifted from the grow sites and transported for further processing.

"It's a lot like 'Groundhog Day,'" a reclamation team member said after his fourth day removing waste, referring to the 1993 movie in which Bill Murray's character relives the same day again and again. "But we know we are making progress and doing this for the right reason."

The reclamation teams consisted of a full spectrum of law enforcement agents, with California National Guard members integrated into the teams. The teams were lowered from helicopters, or hoisted, into the remote grow sites and spent long days cleaning up trash and "chasing line." The intricate web of black irrigation tubing often led members through treacherous terrain to additional grow sites and further scarred forest.

"[Criminal organizations] are clear-cutting trees, poaching animals, damaging water sources and poisoning the forest," said Lt. Sam Castillo of the California Department of Fish and Game. "It is common for the growers to use rodenticides, pesticides and fertilizers, many of which are illegally brought into this country. … That eventually gets into water that is consumed by plants, animals and people."

Full Court Press resulted in seizure or eradication of 632,000 marijuana plants and 2,000 pounds of processed marijuana, according to the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office. Agents also seized $30,000 in U.S. currency, 38 weapons and 20 vehicles, and they arrested 159 individuals. More than 51,000 pounds of garbage, 40 miles of irrigation line and 5,500 pounds of fertilizer and pesticides were removed from the forest.

"The growers do tremendous damage to California's land and they pose serious risks to the citizens of California," said Army Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, adjutant general of the California National Guard.

"I am very proud of the efforts of the Soldiers and Airmen of the California National Guard and their involvement in Full Court Press. They are highly trained professionals who provide unique abilities to law enforcement agents who take on this very difficult, demanding and important mission."



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