As the helicopter raced over the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Saturday morning, the pilot explained his rationale for flying low and fast.
"We try to fly about 300 feet above the ground," said the Jackson County Sheriff's deputy. "It's better than at high altitude. This way you are only a target for a few seconds."
Folks who grow marijuana on federal forestland have been known to take shots at unwanted visitors, he will tell you.
He and the copilot -- both of whom asked not to be named or photographed because of the sensitivity of their work -- were flying U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, to Gold Beach to discuss the growing marijuana problem on federal land with a team of drug fighters called Southern Oregon Multi-Agency Marijuana Eradication and Reclamation -- or SOMMER.
En route, the deputies pointed out sites where patches of marijuana plants had been confiscated in the mountains overlooking the Applegate Valley. Most of the raided patches resembled clear cuts from the air.
The pot isn't just on federal land: the helicopter flew over countless marijuana plants growing behind tall fences adjacent to homes in Jackson and Josephine counties, which one of the deputies described as "pseudo medical marijuana" patches. Some of the sites had more than two dozen plants that look like oversized tomato plants from above.
But the pilot steered clear of what he described as two active "cartel grows" on federal land farther into the flight, noting he didn't want to tip off the growers.
A "grow" refers to an illegal marijuana patch. "Cartel" is a reference to Mexican drug-trafficking organizations which law enforcement officials say are now involved in growing marijuana on federal land in the region.
To a man, the seven sheriffs in the group organized by Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters urged Walden for more funding to beef up their departments, which have been hit hard by budget cuts over the years.
Unlike domestic pot operations of years past, many of the plantations now growing on federal land are operated by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations who are well-financed and well-armed, the sheriffs said.
"The longer it goes on, the harder it will be for us to overcome," Winters told Walden. "They are better funded than us ... There are more of them than there are of us."
In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center's 2010 national drug threat assessment released in February reported that the number of plants removed from public land grew more than 300 percent from 2004 to 2008, primarily from pot gardens operated by Mexican drug cartels. The pot growers favor public land because of its remoteness and because it can't be seized or traced to an owner, the report said.
A separate 2008 NDIC report on cartel-related drug-trafficking organizations said the Federation cartel was active in Klamath Falls, and undetermined cartels were working in Medford and Roseburg.
To consolidate law-enforcement efforts, Winters came up with the SOMMER project and received a $202,000 federal grant to find, investigate, remove and clean up marijuana gardens on federal land this summer. Other counties participating in SOMMER include Josephine, Curry, Coos, Douglas, Klamath and Lake.
The seven counties pulled out more than 55,000 pot plants from federal land in 2009, with nearly 30,000 of them coming from Jackson County.
The Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, the Drug Enforcement Administration operation that funded SOMMER, reported earlier this year that pot plantations on federal land in Oregon, California and Washington are among the biggest producers in the nation.
After observing one eradicated pot plantation after another during the flight, Walden concluded to no one in particular, "We used to grow timber."
The congressman, who told the sheriffs he would do everything he could to help their cause, is urging U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to increase their efforts to stop pot growing on federal lands. Vilsack oversees the Forest Service, while Salazar is in charge of the Bureau of Land Management.
In a separate letter to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Walden asked for increased assistance from both the Oregon National Guard and the state police in helping stop the illegal drug operations.
"These growing operations are typically guarded largely by armed foreign nationals, who pose a direct and dangerous threat to ranchers, hikers and anyone enjoying our public lands," Walden warned in the letters.
The Justice Department's 2010 national drug threat assessment concluded the operations "constitute the greatest drug-trafficking threat" to the nation, he added.
Like Winters, Curry County Sheriff John Bishop told Walden that his deputies are spread very thin, although working together through SOMMER has boosted their combined resources.
But overtime and flight time eats into their extremely tight budgets, Bishop said.
"We are getting into country now where we can't expect our guys to hike in there in 120-degree weather, cut the plants, haul that out and then haul out the trash and toxins and all that," he said. "We've got to have helos, and that is expensive."
Helicopters enable law enforcement officers to hit more "grows" per week, an activity that averages about three patches a week during this time of year, Winters told the congressman.
"In the old days, when we used to hike in with the steep terrain and everything, our guys were wiped out," he said, adding they were lucky to hit one patch a week.
"And there is so much more dope now," he added. "You aren't dealing with just a few plants now. You are dealing with grows that have 5,000 plants."
In 2009, his department assisted law enforcement officers just across the state line in Siskiyou County, Calif., raiding a patch which had 200,000 plants, Winters said.
"We've picked up our efficiency and are doing the best we can but we don't have enough people," Winters said. "Most of us are half-staffed or losing people."
"Consolidation is absolutely the only way to combat this -- we just don't have the resources," stressed Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson.
Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger said departments can't hire law enforcement officers on a seasonal basis to eradicate pot on federal land.
"These are guys you are pulling off the street to handle this work," Evinger said. "So you have to pay them overtime or go short on shifts."
In answer to a question by Walden, all the sheriffs said the lion's share of the illegal pot patches they are eradicating are on federal land. They also observed that using federal funds literally ties them up in red tape.
"The cartels shouldn't be able to do business easier than us," Winters said at one point.
While the sheriffs were quick to tell Walden the Forest Service and BLM work with them, they asked for more federal help.
"It's already a collective effort," Winters said. "We need them to come in and help us a little more. It's their land.
"The problem we get into as county sheriffs, we have to protect our people from county line to county line," he added. "They recreate, fish and hunt out there. So we end up having that responsibility whether we like it or not."
Noting the cartels use money raised from pot to fund other criminal activities, the sheriffs said they often find gang members and others manning the illegal patches.
"Now they are going in with weapons and camping," Bishop said. "It is more dangerous going into gardens now than anytime in the 24 years I've been in law enforcement."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at email@example.com.
Proposed law would boost penalties
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden supports the Federal Lands Counter-drug Strategy and Enforcement Enhancement Act, which increases penalties for those convicted of growing marijuana on federal lands.
Known as House Resolution 5645, it was introduced earlier this year by U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
The bill would dramatically increase penalties for growing and manufacturing illegal drugs on public lands.
Penalties would include:
* A 10-year prison term in addition to existing prison terms for violating the current laws.
* A five- to 10-year prison term for using a poison, chemical or other hazardous material while growing drugs on federal land.
* A 10-year prison term for diverting water or clear-cutting timber.
* A prison term for assembling a booby trap on federal property where a controlled substance is manufactured, to be served consecutively to any term already imposed.
* A stiffer sentence for pot growers who use a firearm in the commission of their crime.