Marijuana growers hoping to get away with using public forestland for their illegal operations are getting smarter in their efforts to avoid detection, according to U.S. Forest Service officials.
A multimillion-dollar pot growing operation busted in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in August involved 22 to 25 small grow sites rather than the three or four football-field-sized sites used in previous years’ operations, said Forest Service district ranger Jeff Seefeldt.
The latest bust, in which seven people were arrested, was the third in Chequamegon-Nicolet and the 10th in northern Wisconsin woods since 2008, according to the Wisconsin Department of Justice
The growers in this most recent incident clear-cut multiple areas in the forest, some no larger than a typical living room, rather than going for the large-scale clearing operations used in recent years, Seefeldt said.
He guessed that the total growing space was about the same but that the smaller potfields, which investigators referred to as “guerrilla sites,” were designed to be harder to detect.
The guerrilla sites were located along the south branch of the Oconto River for easy irrigation, Seefeldt said. Previous sites showed signs that growers brought in pumps and hoses to transport water to their plants, but that wasn’t needed for these sites, he said.
Investigators harvested 8,385 marijuana plants and seized 125 to 150 pounds of processed marijuana as part of this investigation, according to the Department of Justice. The plants were airlifted out of their grow sites and dumped into areas of the forest that had been flattened by a tornado in recent years, then plowed over, Seefeldt said.
Seefeldt, two other Forest Service workers and a state investigator led 13 members of the news media on a tour of a handful of the sites Thursday. The sites were south of Wisconsin 64 and west of Oconto County T , near the Langlade County border.
The sites were a half-hour’s hike along narrow paths into the forest from the nearest road, involved a crossing by fallen-log bridge over the river and a climb over several fallen trees.
The growers set up about a half-dozen campsites in the forest from which they could monitor and manage the grow sites and apparently trucked their gear in hockey bags on those paths to get to their campsites.
Typically, growers live at their sites and someone brings food and other supplies as needed, investigators said.
Seefeldt’s tour included one such campsite, which consisted of a small tent, the entrance of which was protected by large plastic tarpaulins strung up between trees.
Another tarp at the site was loaded with a two-foot high mound of garbage — egg shells, empty boxes of raman noodles, bottled water and energy drinks, ranch dressing and similar items. A pot of moldy rice and beans remained on a long-extinguished campfire. The campers had lashed twigs together to make a small table, and a pair of underwear lay on the ground nearby.
The grow site itself until last week contained dozens of plants, some at least 8 feet tall. Thursday, it consisted mostly of shallow craters, where pot plants had been.
The sites, while smaller than previous sites, are no less destructive to public lands, said Suzanne Flory, Forest Service spokeswoman.
The forest growth likely will return, but the growers apply pesticides and herbicides that could have lasting impact on the sensitive forest environment and river, and that and the clear-cutting of trees near the riverbank could alter the habitat for trout, Flory said.
Authorities learned of the sites through a tip from a fisherman in early June, according to a criminal complaint. Law enforcement officials spent the next several weeks tracking vehicles coming and going from the sites. The investigation eventually led to a woman, one of the drivers, living in the Fond du Lac County community of Brandon.
She and four other suspects were arrested Aug. 25 on U.S. 41, apparently heading to Brandon, while a sixth was arrested in a red pickup truck seen frequently at the grow sites, the complaint says. A seventh had been arrested a few days earlier in Idaho. Their cases remain active in U.S. District Court in Green Bay.
Flory called upon the public who use public forests to be vigilant for such operations. Growers frequently are armed and should be considered dangerous, so anyone happening upon a grow site should leave quietly and report it to their local law enforcement agency, Flory said.