Sequoia, Drugs, and Rangers

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.

Comments

You had me at hello. For a second there, I thought someone tipped you off about my time at Sequoia. Just kidding :) But seriously, this is yet another reason to decriminalize.
I'm curious as to how these drug lords get access to the park. Are there that many roads into the chaparral areas? Why doesn't the park or the DEA set up checkpoints on the roads, looking for vehicles carrying fertilizers, irrigation equipment etc. Or are all these things being packed in on foot?
How come Swed is not receiving/demanding the necessary resources from the DEA? Back country rangers should be focused where primary Park use occurs not battling large drug plantations. That should be the focus of the DEA. Both organizations undergo significantly different training and offer different skills to the public.
Good question, Green. The short answer is that DEA doesn't have the manpower needed to tackle each and every incident across the country. Swed pointed out to me that, while DEA officials are working with park officials as well as Forest Service and county officials to track down the cartels involved and bring them to justice, Sequoia is the jurisdiction of the National Park Service and the park rangers are tasked with upholding all laws in the parks, whether that be illegal camping or illegal drug running. I agree that things are getting crazy out there, that park rangers in many areas are being asked to wear a multitude of hats, from park ranger to Border Patrol to Customs Agent to DEA. Unfortunately, the financial resources don't adequately exist to help the rangers in all those areas, so they have to pick and choose.
Let's keep using federal funding and resource to round up and deport illegal immigrant workers, and handcuffing seven year old American Citizens, like the incidents in San Rafael and Novato California instead of pursuing drug cartels and abusers of our National Treasures.
Having not set foot in Sequoia-Kings since my seasonal days in the 1970s, I have no idea whether this reallocation of resources is a good idea or a bad idea. However, I do know that selectively deploying one's resources to deal with the most pressing problems is what law enforcement management is all about. In this Bushite era of depleted staffs, the choices have become especially difficult. And I can't help wondering if the following paragraph from the anonymous complainer explains a lot about where he or she is coming from: "As a consolation for losing their enviable jobs, those of the wilderness ranger corps who hold law enforcement commissions may be given the opportunity to join the marijuana program. However, in spite of the skills and experience of the wilderness rangers, few if any are trained in special operations necessary for nighttime surveillance and commando-style raids. Fewer still are likely willing to relocate to a new duty station to work a 10PM to 6AM shift scrambling through poison oak instead of protecting visitors and wildlife at their beloved alpine posts." It's certainly tough to say goodbye to an "enviable job," but I'll reserve judgment on the wisdom of this decision until somebody can show me facts and figures to back up their arguments.
The marijuana problem exists not just at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks but also Sequoia National Forest, the Sierra National Forest, the Los Padres National Forest, etc. And the National Forests seem to have even less money and less resources to deal with the problem... ugh. I had the opportunity to help clean up a marijuana garden a few years back. The plants had all been removed. But what was left behind was atrocious - the most sickening pile of trash imaginable. Food, wrappers, cans, bottles, tp, bags of fertilizer, old leaking stove fuel cans, clothing, sleeping bags, and miles of irrigation pipeline. It was some of the toughest work I've ever done helping to clean it all up.
One of the most active marijuana growing areas in Sequoia is accessed via the Mineral King Road. The NPS now has a 24 hour gate at that entrance. It seems that checking vehicles on the access roads would be better way of stopping marijuana growing that finding the fields, by which time the damage to the land has already been done. I had to submit to a bag search when I entered the Smithsonian for fear I would attack the historic/cultural objects there. Vehicles should be inspected for irrigation pipes, fertilizer and the other equipment used in marijuana growing before entrace to the park is allowed. My state, California, stops and inspects my vehicle for contraband fruit to keep out fruit flies, it seems that stopping cars to protect the park from environmental damage would be a smarter use of limited resources to protect the parks.
Have you ever seen the lines of vehicles backed up at National Park entrance stations? At my park, these lines extend for over a mile at peak visitation periods. This suggestion of mandatory vehicle searches upon entry to National Parks would be impossible to carry out without waiting in lines smelling exhaust fumes for hours.