This is a ridiculous story. The photo of the officer burning the confiscated crops is just a ridiculous thought too. - Allan in Illinois
Forest preserves, parks go to pot
'LIKE CORN' | As border security intensifies, dope farmers cultivate public lands
September 14, 2008
BY ANDREW HERRMANN AND MARK J. KONKOL Staff Reporters
With the U.S.-Mexico border being tightened, law enforcement is seeing more locally grown marijuana -- often with dope farmers using public lands such as parks and forest preserves.
Cook County Forest Preserve District Police Chief Richard Waszak says there has been an increase in marijuana farming operations in the Forest Preserve District's 64,000 acres in recent years.
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Cook County Forest Preserve Police Officer Jim Bolek checks out a budding marijuana plant in July before tossing it into a burning pile.
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Last month, Forest Preserve police burned about 3,000 plants at Pioneer Woods near Palos Hills, gathered from half a dozen spots in the south suburbs.
And earlier this year, two men were sentenced to two years in prison in connection with tens of thousands of marijuana plants grown "in straight rows like corn" in a forest preserve near Barrington.
Mexican nationals Jose Verra and Bernardo Rangel, both 23, told investigators they were farmers paid to grow the crop. A college-age conservation intern found the "plantation" and told authorities.
Verra and Rangel tended about 20,000 marijuana plants valued at a total of $4 million, at the Crabtree Nature Preserve. During the bust, a tent was found along with food supplies, fertilizer bags and a cooking and showering area. About 30 yards away, the farmers had built a reinforced underground bunker.
Waszak said he suspects marijuana growers are using public land to avoid having their private property seized if their crop is spotted by investigators.
In August, police destroyed about 1,800 marijuana plants being cultivated on land owned by the McHenry County Conservation District -- one of the largest drug operations authorities there can recall finding on public land.
"It doesn't belong to anybody, like a farmer's field does," McHenry County Sheriff Keith Nygren said. "A lot of it has to do with the land being set aside and remote. It's ideal for growers."
Large-scale marijuana farming, with a late September to mid-October harvest, isn't for your average Cheech and Chong.
"It's very labor-intensive. You have to clear the land, build berms to keep the deer out and fertilize,'' said one official. "You have to know what you're doing.''
Many times, the crops are watched by armed guards to protect against "patch pilots'' -- other dope dealers who steal crops.
And if "you've got a family hiking along and stumbling into this, that's not good,'' the official said.
John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, says 75 percent to 80 percent of marijuana grown outdoors in the United States is on state or federal land. The Drug Enforcement Administration says more than 4.8 million marijuana plants were seized at outdoor sites in 2006.
Tighter border controls make it harder to smuggle marijuana into the United States, so more Mexican drug networks are growing crops here, Walters says.
Drug organizations use the Chicago area as a base for distributing marijuana across the Midwest, says DEA special agent Joanna Zoltay. But the problem is being seen across the country.
For example, the number of marijuana plants confiscated on public land in California grew from 40 percent of total seizures in 2001 to 75 percent in 2007.
A site operated by a Mexican organization with 16,742 marijuana plants was raided last month in North Cascades National Park in Washington state. People living at the site cut trees, dammed creeks and left 1,000 pounds of trash.
Thousands of marijuana plants were seized last month in Utah's Dixie National Forest, with a man charged with drug and immigration offenses, the DEA said. And in July and August, officials seized more than 340,000 plants, some from Sequoia National Forest and Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks.
But groves are often well-hidden.
"They don't make it so anyone can see it," Waszak said.
Marijuana sometimes grows naturally -- so-called "ditch weed.'' Visitors to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore were warned this summer that thousands of plants have sprouted there. But Waszak said the weed in the Cook County preserves isn't growing wild.
"Fertilizer bags and milk jugs don't grow in the Forest Preserve," Waszak said. "We concentrate on finding cartels or people growing excess plants that certainly are not for personal consumption."
Forest Preserve police team with the DEA to investigate major growing operations. Their probes typically start during the spring planting season, keeping watch on the crop and making busts before the plants are harvested.
Contributing: Dan Rozek, Sun-Times wires