Sequoia National Park has a drug problem, and it's being run by Mexican cartels that have terraced pot farms into the lower elevations of the park's chaparral landscape, parts of which are located in designated wilderness.
Unfortunately, the park doesn't have all the manpower and all the financial resources it needs to effectively combat the cartels. But park officials try.
Since 2001, rangers have pulled more than 100,000 pot plants out of the park, all the while on the lookout for the armed drug runners who have set up intricate cultivation systems complete with hydration lines, fertilizers, and even booby-traps intended for bears that come after their garbage.
So bad is the situation that the chief ranger for Sequoia and Kings Canyon, J.D. Swed, has identified the marijuana operations as the greatest threat to the park's wilderness areas. And so he's asked his backcountry managers -- one each in Sequoia and Kings Canyon -- to redirect some of their resources so he can increase the ranger presence in the lower elevations where the marijuana farming is ongoing.
Not everyone is thrilled with Swed's decision, though.
Now, anonymous sources always trouble me. You have a hard time judging whether they're feeding you the entire truth, or coloring it slightly because of some gripe they harbor, or whether their "tip" is a total fabrication. Certainly we learned that at the start of the year when Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility claimed that Grand Canyon rangers couldn't discuss the canyon's geology.
So I called Swed this afternoon and we talked about the drug problem in Sequoia, about the anonymous tipster, about backcountry rangers, and about what he's trying to do. And unless he fed me a bunch of bunk, which would be pretty easy to demonstrate, the anonymous tip seems to hold little credibility.
"Obviously, people are passionate about what they do," he told me. "I think in this case it's a little misguided to think that the high foxtail pine wilderness areas are more valuable than the low chaparral. If a large threat were to occur in a high alpine meadow, if we had groups of people going up there, setting up long-term camps, digging and terracing in the high meadows, killing bears and other wildlife that come into the area, poisoning streams with fertilizer and herbicides and being armed and dangerous, I think those wilderness rangers would be screaming at me to make sure that we did something about that.
"The fact that this exact same thing is happening in chaparral, but yet they don't see the connection or don't have the same passion, to me means that they're just not thinking this through."
As to the question of whether he plans to decimate the entire ranks of backcountry rangers and turn them into drug agents, Swed replied: "The public will still see rangers out there, the resources will still be protected and, at 11 (rangers), that's one more ranger in each district, or each park, one more than when I first got here (as chief ranger) two-and-a-half years ago. So we are not going to lower the levels of high-altitude wilderness rangers to the lowest that they've been. They've been lower in the very near past than they will be this summer."
Now, depending on how the backcountry managers decide to redirect their resources, some of the 11 or 12 rangers that will be in the backcountry this summer might have a little bit more ground to cover than they've had to in the past.
"They may not be hunkered down in a ranger station, they might have to put a backpack on to go patrol that area," says Swed.
Before we hung up, the chief ranger stressed that he found it ironic that the anonymous tipster was criticizing him for trying to protect wilderness from the marijuana operations.
"It's the biggest threat to wilderness that we have in this park. Wouldn't I be irresponsible not to do this?" he said.