Famed for the biggest trees in the world, Sequoia National Park is now No. 1 in another flora department: marijuana growing, with more land carved up by pot growers than any other park.
Parts of Sequoia, including the Kaweah River drainage and areas off Mineral King Road, are no-go zones for visitors and park rangers during the April-to-October growing season, when drug lords cultivate pot on an agribusiness-scale fit for the Central Valley.
“It’s so big that we have to focus our resources on one or two areas at a time, because otherwise it’s beyond our scope,” says Sequoia’s lone special agent assigned to the marijuana war, who, for his own safety, can’t be identified.
In the last year, 100,000 marijuana plants have been removed from California national parks, including 44,000 from Sequoia. Cannabis operations are even more widespread in national forests and on BLM lands, where more than 500,000 plants were yanked last year. Pot busts on public lands in California have skyrocketed from an average of a couple of hundred plants per seizure a few years ago to an average of 3,500 today.
The pot growers are no longer the stereotype of hapless hippies. They are part of sophisticated criminal organizations schooled on the Colombian cartels’ economy of scale, says Ruzzamenti. “They do things big. Even if you lose a little here, you’ll make it up in the long run. They’ve taken this lesson to another level,” he says.
Most of the ringleaders, say investigators, are U.S. nationals based in Southern California with connections to cartel families in Michoacán, Mexico; field workers are well-armed Mexican laborers.
“We’ve found AR-15s, shotguns, rifles, knives strapped to poles, crude crossbows,” says J.D. Swed, chief ranger at Sequoia.