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Drug cartels leave a scarred forest legacy

Southern Oregon's forests carry the scars created by drug cartels that abuse them to make money in the lucrative marijuana market.

An intense crackdown on Mexican drug cartel growing operations in Southern Oregon's hills appears to have pushed the cartels elsewhere, but they have left behind a legacy of environmental damage — and, potentially, a threat to other forest users.

Several of the 31 marijuana-growing sites busted on public lands in 2010 continue to be environmental hazards marked by hills of trash, scattered fertilizer and pesticides and contaminated creeks that spill into fish-bearing streams.

"These grow sites are a disaster for the public," Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said. "You can't believe what you see when you get into one."

Winters produces a thick stack of photographs taken at the gardens and spreads them out on a table.

They show filthy campsites strewn with Pepsi bottles, car batteries and countless packets of Ramen noodles.

One photo, taken near Ramsey Creek in Josephine County, shows a pile of trash that had tumbled over into the water. Junk can be seen floating downstream.

"This all flows down into our rivers," said sheriff's spokeswoman Andrea Carlson.

The trash in many of the raided gardens remains to this day; no one has gone in to clean up the sites.

Winters said 2010 was such a busy year for marijuana raids that the Southern Oregon Multi-Agency Marijuana Eradication and Reclamation team, or SOMMER — which covers Jackson, Josephine, Coos, Curry, Douglas, Klamath and Lake counties — didn't have time to haul out the garbage along with the plants.

"We were going from one grow to another," Winters said. "And there's so much trash at some of these sites that it would take a large team of guys days to haul it out. In some respects, the marijuana is easier to remove than the garbage."

The creeks are further damaged by the fertilizer haphazardly dumped around the gardens to spur growth. Some of the photos show pools and streams that have turned a unnatural shade of turquoise because of fertilizer contamination.

"Who knows what's in these particular fertilizers?" Carlson said. "And here it is entering our streams."

Winters said the campsites often come equipped with generators and propane burning stoves used to cook food. But they are most notable for the huge piles of garbage that accumulated when the camps were active.

Jackson County Commissioner John Rachor is troubled by the thought of the abandoned marijuana gardens dotting the forestlands.

"I helped out by driving a dump truck to haul out the marijuana at some of these places," he said. "I've seen what they look like and it isn't pretty."

Rachor reached out to a local environmental group looking to put together cleanup teams that would hike into the remote campsite to haul out cartel garbage.

He hit a snag, though, when law enforcement with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service both said such missions could put volunteers at risk.

"They said these places can be booby trapped and are dangerous," Rachor said. "You have to have people trained to deal with these things."

Winters discourages anyone from entering a garden, even if it's to help clean up after the cartels leave.

"You just can't send a group of school kids in there," Winters said. "It's not safe."

Winters says he's working on a plan to eventually clean up the mess.

When the sheriff's department begins training in the woods for future raids, he will direct them to the old grow sites. Once there, deputies will end their day by hauling out the garbage left over from previous gardens.

"This is the most cost-effective way we can do it," Winters said. "It's killing two birds with one stone."

Even though the cartels have been largely silent this year, they could return in 2012 and pick up where they left off, Winters said.

He advises anyone who comes across a marijuana garden in the forest to quickly back away and leave the area.

"Don't ever enter one of these gardens," he said.

In 2010, two bow hunters in Jackson County came face-to-face with armed guards patrolling a pot garden, Winters said.

Anyone who encounters a garden should move away to a safe distance and then call 9-1-1.

Local police are keeping in contact with departments in northeast Oregon that are dealing with large marijuana gardens run by cartels.

A 91,000-plant garden was found this summer outside Enterprise. It is the largest marijuana garden found in Oregon history.

Winters worries that continuing budget cuts will hamper efforts to combat the cartel gardens on public lands across the state.

"These cartels aren't going away," he said. "There's too much money involved. And they will keep coming back as long as we let them."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters shows pictures of former marijuana-growing sites created by Mexican drug cartels on public forestlands in Southern Oregon. - Mail Tribune / Julia Moore