Weather could drive marijuana growers to lower elevations

Officials warn outdoor enthusiasts to be careful when in remote areas

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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It’s been a cold, damp spring for all of us, and that apparently includes marijuana growers.

After federal officials sent out an advisory last week about marijuana growing on public land, Undersheriff Dave Cox discussed how the issue might affect outdoor recreation in the Columbia Gorge.

His jurisdiction in Skamania County includes a huge piece of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, where multiagency teams have destroyed illegal grows over the past few summers in remote, isolated areas.

Those illegal grows might not be quite as remote this year.

“We had a really cold spring, and with the snow level as low as it’s been, it will shorten up the growing season a bit,” Cox said. “It will force growers into areas lower than they usually would like. They may not have access to areas they have had in the past, where they can get deeper into the forest.”

That doesn’t mean day-hikers and people walking their dogs on Columbia Gorge trails will be stumbling across these operations, Cox said.

“If folks travel off the trails, if they do cross-country kinds of things, they may run into” marijuana grows, Cox said. “If people recreate in the forest, we suggest they stay on trails used by the public.”

Outdoor enthusiasts who do stray from the beaten path include hunters.

“The stuff usually is found by hunters,” Cox said, and it’s not always during hunting season. “Hunters start scouting in mid-June or so, looking for animals and where to hunt. We’ve taken marijuana grows up through mid-October.”

They’re usually on south-facing terrain to get maximum sunlight.

Finding the marijuana is just part of the job. There’s also a disposal challenge.

“We don’t spray it; we remove it,” Cox said. That’s why the take-down teams can include military units that provide helicopter assistance.

Nothing suspicious has been reported so far this year, he said.

There was no particular incident that prompted the advisory from the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. It noted that “while only a fraction of National Forest System lands are affected by illegal marijuana cultivation, the Forest Service believes that safety risks are real and visitors and employees should be informed about them.”

The regional advisory actually was part of a nationwide message from the Forest Service, said Jennifer Kevil, spokeswoman for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

“It’s not that something happened to trigger this. The Forest Service wants a consistent message,” Kevil said. “It’s a general news release, telling what to look for.”

The Forest Service news release offers some clues to possible marijuana cultivation sites:

• Hoses or drip lines in unusual or unexpected places.

• A well-used trail where there shouldn’t be one.

• People standing along roads without vehicles present, or in areas where loitering appears unusual.

• Small propane bottles, which are used to avoid the detection of wood smoke.

• Individuals armed with rifles out of hunting season.

• A skunklike smell on a hot day.

• Camps in steep terrain with fertilizer, weapons, garbage and rat poison — and possibly dead animals around the site.

Dead animals?

“The smell of dead animals can keep animals away — except for those that feed on dead animals,” said Cox, the undersheriff. “If there is a deer problem, they might leave a deer carcass laying by the grow to keep deer away.”

Marijuana cultivation harms natural resources, damages ecosystems and impacts the supplies of public drinking water for hundreds of miles, the news release said.

Growers clear native vegetation before planting and sometimes use miles of black plastic tubing to transport water from creeks that are often dammed for irrigation. Banned herbicides and pesticides often used by marijuana growers kill wildlife and competing vegetation. This loss of vegetation allows rainwater to erode the soil and wash poisons, human waste and trash from the grow sites into streams and rivers.

As soon as you become aware that you have come upon a cultivation site, back out immediately, Forest Service officials advised. Never engage the growers: They are dangerous people.

If you can identify a landmark or record a GPS coordinate, that’s very helpful, said the news release.

Get to a safe place and report as much detail about the location and incident as you can recall to any uniformed member of the Forest Service or to a local law enforcement agency. Leave the way you came in, and make as little noise as possible, said the advisory.