By TAHLIA GANSER SKAGIT VALLEY HERALD
MOUNT VERNON -- In mid-August, more than 50 law enforcement officers raided the first marijuana grow site ever discovered on national park land in the state of Washington.
Officers uprooted more than 16,000 marijuana plants in the course of a day -- then shipped them off in dump trucks to be destroyed.
Left behind were the scars of cultivation and tampering with nature, along with months of trash and chemicals used to grow the drug. Cleaning it all up will take a lot of time and money.
The growers escaped and ran free, but without the fruits of their estimated $48 million drug operation. Investigators believe a high-powered Mexican drug organization -- using low-end growers -- is responsible for the grow site in the North Cascades National Park Complex, east of Skagit County near Ross Lake, as well as similar sites in other national parks around the country.
In the past decade, illegal marijuana sites have been discovered and destroyed in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Santa Monica National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore.
For some, the most tragic part of the crime is the scars left behind on the recreational park land after the plants were yanked.
"It's just wild," said Mignonne Bivin on a recent trip to the North Cascades grow site. Bivin is the plant ecologist for the park complex and is responsible for the plan to help restore the land.
"Where did it all go?" she said, looking at bare areas clear cut of Douglas fir to make way for thousands of marijuana plants.
The plants grew in terraced rows in five plots. Three of the plots were about 100 feet by 100 feet. The other two were about half that size.
When the plants were pulled, the mountain was left pocked with foot-wide craters on terraces built by the growers. On five different sites on the mountainside, tall trees still stood, their lower branches stripped away to allow sunlight to reach the crop, and their upper branches kept intact for cover.
The trees that were cut down lay around the perimeters of the sites, stacked up in heaps to keep wildlife out.
"It has disturbed the ecosystem, and I think that's our primary concern," said Kevork Arackellian, a park ranger who helped with the initial raid.
Other tree trunks were cut to build shelters, which were suspended in other trees. A red pepper hung from one of the shelters, and remnants of eggs, onions and limes sat uneaten.
Empty cans of tomato sauce, tortilla wrappers and water bottles were scattered among the different sites.
Investigators believe six growers lived there and tended to the sites for months.
Arackellian said new garbage has appeared since the raid, making him believe that the growers returned.
Bob Mierendorf, who visited the site with Bivin recently, said a flattened patch of ground, used as a sleeping area, hinted to him that people had lived in the area for at least two growing seasons if not more.
"I'm most amazed at the amount of effort and the sheer labor it took to do this," Mierendorf said.
Near one shelter was a clear bathroom area. A nook in the dirt held a white bar of soap, and below it, a 3-foot-wide hole in the ground. A red Folgers coffee can collected water nearby.
Black piping, which collected stream water to irrigate the plants with sprinklers, was strewn along the mountainside along with rat traps and poison.
Full restoration of the five sites will take hundreds of hours of labor. The trash strewn throughout the wilderness area needs to be removed, the shelters dismantled and the fences taken down.
Not much can be done for the damage caused by the unknown amount of chemicals used by the growers, Bivin said, especially without funding.
She's hoping to find volunteers to help with the many hours of work needed. Getting to the area is one problem. The well-hidden site is located near Ross Lake and a steep hike off of the East Bank hiking trail.
"We're hoping that next spring or early summer, we'll be able to get enough people in there to bring back the area to its natural state," Arackellian said.
Park employees will also monitor for invasive species.
"National parks are special places for all Americans places were we bring our family and children to enjoy nature's wonders and learn about their heritage," said National Park Service Director Mary Bomar in an August news release. "Marijuana farms like the one recently destroyed in North Cascades National Park are a blight on our national parks."
In early September, investigators pulled another 6,752 marijuana plants from public land in eastern Skagit County in a similar grow operation. This time, it was on Department of Natural Resources land. The large-scale marijuana grow was the second big operation busted in the area within a month, and the second-biggest operation in the county in the past 25 years, said Skagit County sheriff's office Chief Criminal Deputy Will Reichardt.
"It's one more piece of evidence that the Hispanic drug-trafficking organizations that are so prevalent in Eastern Washington are coming over to this side," Reichardt said. "We're hoping that it's not a trend, but it looks like it's turning into one."
Information from: Skagit Valley Herald, http://www.skagitvalleyherald.com