It's well-known that Sequoia National Park has a drug problem.
What's more difficult to say is how much progress park officials are making in combating that problem. Earlier this week rangers made their first major raid of the year on a pot-growing operation inside the park. What they accomplished was wiping out more than 17,000 marijuana plants and a large nursery that had several thousand seedlings.
Is this the tip of the iceberg, or the iceberg itself?
"We won a skirmish," Sequoia Chief Ranger J.D. Swed told me today in answer to that question. "The war is huge. This is just a little skirmish."
The gardens, which covered about 3 acres along Elk Creek, were spotted last Friday. On Tuesday rangers and other law enforcement personnel went in and destroyed the plants. While two individuals tending the gardens managed to vanish into the brush, two others linked to the site were arrested outside the park and several more arrests are anticipated.
"It's a very good success story for us because our effort this year is to deny ground and catch them early and interview with their activities so they don't get product in the end," says Chief Ranger Swed.
The product, if allowed to mature, would have carried a price tag in the millions, he says, as each of the 17,334 plants in the gardens could produce roughly a pound of marijuana that carried a street value of $4,000 due to its high (21 percent) THC content.
Mexican drug cartels are thought to be behind the growing operations, and the two individuals arrested this week were Mexicans in the country illegally, according to the chief ranger.
An NPS tactical team made up of rangers from several national parks participated with Sequoia/Kings Canyon rangers in the raid. A helicopter unit from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, based out of Riverside, California, provided air support.
Along with destroying the plants, the rangers cut up irrigation hose and destroyed other equipment and materials related to the operation. Later this summer crews will return to haul out the garbage, pesticides and fertilizers, and restore the landscape.