Today's feature is from our originating service, The Outdoor Wire, and involves the use of a private security operation to clean up 'trespass grows' on public land.
As hunting season approaches, if you want to find world-class blacktail bucks with antler spreads of 25-28" or more, historically the best place in the world to go is northwestern California's "B Zone", known as "The Deer Factory," which stretches along the coast from the Oregon border to Mendocino and Glen Counties to the south, and from I-5 on the east to the Pacific Oregon.
According to late wildlife biologist Raymond Dasmann, with prime habitat conditions the B-Zone should support as many as 55 blacktails per square kilometer. However, things aren't well in the B-zone. Between 1989 and 2009 the harvest of bucks in the B-Zone dropped 57%, and it keeps declining. https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Mammals/Deer/Population
While there are many factors affecting the herd decline – food, habitat, and predators including mountain lions, coyotes, bears and now a couple wolves – it's been estimated that illegal poaching kills are at least as large as the legal kill. http://www.mcbadeer.com/MendoDeerProject_FinalReport2014a%20-%20no_gps.pdf
Deer poaching in California is a serious problem, but just who are the poachers? Paul Trouette has lived in Mendocino County all his life, during which time he's seen the decline of blacktail deer in "The Deer Factory." In 2005 Tourette founded the Mendocino Blacktail Association http://www.mcbadeer.com
/ to work on restoring the herd. Paul also was appointed to be a member of the Mendocino County Fish and Game Commission, which distributes 50% of all fines collected from citations written by game wardens in Mendocino County to various conservation programs in the county.
As Trouette researched the decline, he arrived at the conclusion that a major contributing factor was "the illegal trespass marijuana trade," to which he gave the name "The New Predator," as public and private wildlands of the Golden State are home to more illegal grows of marijuana than any other state, and the growers are almost all associated with international drug cartels.
California Is Going to Pot
The value of California's pot crop is estimated at worth $14 billion a year. For comparison, California wine is valued at $2 billion a year. California recently passed a recreational marijuana law, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/lists/legal-pot-in-california-everything-we-know-w485079
that will make recreational pot legal in 2018, and there already are laws allowing medical marijuana, but as much as 80% of the pot grown in CA is grown on trespass grows on federal lands. Growers poach deer and wildlife, and may shoot at hikers and hikers, Press Democrat
but they also pollute streams with illegal fertilizer and pesticides, and guzzle water that drains salmon spawning streams and keeps farmers from irrigating. https://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2017-09-08/banned-pesticides-from-illegal-pot-farms-seep-into-california-water
Trespass grows can contain up to 30,000 plants, and they use 50% more water because of less efficient irrigation systems. One study by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that trespass marijuana grows use about 300 million gallons of water per square mile, per year. To put things into perspective, the 1.1 million illegal pot plants removed in California in 2016 would have used somewhere around 1.3 billion gallons of water. And, law enforcement agencies say that they are able to get only about 10% of what's being grown.
Even if recreational marijuana is legalized nationwide, illegal marijuana sales will not go away, as illicit sale prices will be less than legal sales, the volume is not regulated, and no tax is charged. And to sell their pot, cartels are connected with street gangs all around the US. http://www.npr.org/news/graphics/2009/mar/mexico_cartel/index.html
How Did This Mess Get Started?
Back in the 1960's, busloads of hippies migrated to California's redwood forests to tune in, turn on and drop out with the help of "weed"– Cannabis sativa. What started out as recreation, evolved into a billion dollar business in the "Emerald Triangle" of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity Counties. Some of the marijuana grown there today is legal medical marijuana, and with the recent passage of a law that allows people to grow some of their own pot and possess up to an ounce for recreation, you'd think that life in the Emerald Triangle would be mellow. Not so.
The marijuana cartels don't just ravage the land and water, they trash everything to get their crops in the ground and harvested. More than three dozen sleeping bags left behind attest to the manpower and presence they have on public lands.
Rich Russell, commander of Mendocino's Major Crimes Task Force, estimates that at least half of the county's residents work in the marijuana economy. Some are legal, but others are illegal, as international drug cartels, street gangs, and other criminal groups are running the large illegal marijuana grows on public and private wildlands. The growers cultivate trespass gardens with thousands of plants that are fed by miles of black plastic irrigation pipes that draw water from streams, mix it with illegal fertilizer and pesticides, and produce plants that are worth about $2000 or more each street value. The growers are all armed and arrive not long after the snow melts and stay on site 24/7 until the crop is harvested. During their time there they are periodically supplied with food, but they also enjoy fresh venison.
The first documented marijuana cartel gardens in California were discovered in Sequoia National Park in 1998. Today, illegal gardens on both private and public wildlands typically have 5,000 to 30,000 plants. According to DEA Agents, a cartel "owns" every National Forest, National Park, state park, and wildlife refuge in the state. If growers from two different groups decide to compete for the same area, they bury the dead in the woods. Illegal growers also shoot at outdoor recreationists. In 2011 city councilman and former Fort Bragg mayor Jere Melo was killed by a grower with a garden of opium poppies, which are also cultivated, and some gardens also include meth labs.
As illegal marijuana became big business, in 1983 CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Production) – was formed by the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. CAMP is composed of local, state and federal agencies organized expressly to eradicate illegal marijuana cultivation and trafficking in California. With more than 110 agencies having participated, CAMP has become the largest inter-agency law enforcement task force in the United States. http://www.ag.ca.gov/bne/camp.php
In 2011, "Operation Full Court Press"—a three-week raid carried out by CAMP —netted some 632,000 marijuana plants in and around the Mendocino National Forest, with a street value in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Despite's the efforts of CAMP and others, including California Fish and Wildlife's recently developed special tactical unit of game wardens, https://thecrimereport.org/2017/05/01/war-in-the-woods-game-wardens-battle-marijuana-cartels/
the total plants seized per year statewide has increased to over 1.5 million. California's legalization of pot has resulted in an even larger demand, and a significant amount of marijuana grown illegally in the state is smuggled to other states. Some new approaches are badly needed to reclaim wildlands, and Paul Trouette and some of his friends have come up with a new strategy.
LEAR ASSETS MANAGEMENT
In 2012 Trouette and some friends formed LEAR ASSET MANAGEMENT (Logistical Efficient Asset Remediation). https://www.learasset.com/home
. Trouette, who is the CEO, says, "our personnel (The company now has 15-20 non-deployed military and special-ops personnel) that have backgrounds and experience in Federal Protection Security, Law Enforcement, Border Patrol, BORTAC, Special Weapons and Tactics units, and EMT's, and Military. We specialize in 'Counter Trespass Operations' or CTO."
Paul Trouette and LEAR in a trespass grow. Plants can sometimes grow to fifteen feet.
LEAR initially was contracted by large corporate land holdings to do the work of Counter Trespass Operations, disrupting illicit gardens from private client property, protecting private forests and wildlands, and performing forest reclamations that are frequently funded by government grants. Deep in the woods, they cut down illegal pot plants, arrested growers and scrubbed the environmental footprint produced by the backwoods drug trade. And their business is booming.
Paul adds, "We don't conduct vigilante activities. Our Officers are licensed by the State of California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS). They are Ca 832 PC and/or Ca POST (Law Enforcement Academy) certified and have backgrounds and experience in Federal Protection Security, Law Enforcement, HAZMAT, and EMT's, and Military Special Weapons and Tactics. We're certified by Cal Dept. of Justice Rural Operations, and trained by LAPD Metro in Counter Terrorism response actions, California Central Intelligence Center, Behavioral threat assessment, the State Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, and the California game warden's tactical unit. We aren't deputized. It isn't required. We have arrest powers under the California Penal Code. Our funding comes from government and private contracts."
LEAR now works in cooperation with County Sheriff's Depts. & Task Forces (in Multiple Counties); DEA; CA Fish and Wildlife game wardens, BLM, USFS, AG Commissioners and hazardous waste agencies, Special Operation Interagency Teams, Regional Water Quality state and federal agencies; and the game warden MET Team.
According to Paul, "LEAR specializes in marijuana eradication, land reclamation, anti-poaching, environmental clean-up and illegal trespass mitigation. We've arrested scores of wildlife and resource poachers, and water theft operations on private property. We also apprehend fugitives with outstanding warrants who are hiding in the wildlands, and work in environmental restoration by STABO and helicopter operations, removing pollutants, trash, pesticides, fertilizers, banned toxins and poly-irrigation.
We also provide multiple security solutions such as armed or unarmed, uniformed or undercover guards and patrols; quick reaction and response teams able to mobilize and respond to incidents such as intrusion alarms, executive protection or personal protection, workplace violence and hostile employee terminations, tracking and locating lost and missing persons in rural environments, and fugitive recovery. Our work also includes traditional private security like posting PSCO'S (protective security contracted officers) on construction sites, road building, as well as apprehending wildlife poachers and illegal demonstrators, and conducting trainings for Law Enforcement personnel and other state employees on how to respond to illegal marijuana grows.
We're certified by the California Dept. of Justice in rural operations, trained in Federal Protective Services by Homeland Security, and are proficient in human tracking, counter-trespass, surveillance, trespass narcotic investigations, and removal of unpermitted entrants. We also provide airborne helicopter reclamation operations on large corporate and private properties."
Paul adds that "LEAR was recently approached by a northern California City Government to work as a special unit to assist other Law Enforcement in counter-drug activity, targeting unlicensed marijuana grows in that area. LEAR has also been approached to send personnel to other cities and states and Africa to help create teams that will help mitigate wildlife poachers."
As far as Paul knows, "LEAR ASSETS is the only private security company in the United States that primarily focuses on wildlands conservation and protection." LEAR folks jokingly call themselves "The New Pinkertons."
A Harbinger of the Future?
California has the most cartel trespass pot gardens, but they've been found in at least 20 other states and 67 National Forests. The US Forest Service now distributes a brochure that advises recreationists about what they should do when they see suspicious people on National Forests. https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fsm8_050264.pdf
Grows are also found on National Parks, BLM lands, USFWS wildlife refuges, US Army Corps of Engineers dam sites, and state and regional local parks, etc. Cleveland.com article
Illegal grows are being found in increasing numbers in the Midwest, Rockies, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and the Appalachians. http://www.officer.com/news/10830788/drug-cartels-using-wis-national-park-to-grow
And that's not the only type of crime that's increasing on wildlands.
While urban crime has been on the decline since the l990's, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/21/5-facts-about-crime-in-the-u-s/
crime and violence have been increasing on wildlands. Attacks on US Forest Service and National Park Staff have reached all-time highs, according to the FBI. PEER, (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) reports that there were 34 incidents involving attacks on US park rangers in 1995, but by 2005 there were 477 – a 13-fold increase.
According to PEER, in 2012 reported assault incidents rose more than 40% in wildlife refuges and in areas patrolled by the U.S. Park Police, and by more than 12% in national parks, and many assaults were not reported. According to PEER, "National Park Service officers are 12 times more likely to be killed or injured as a result of an assault than FBI agents."
Adding to the problem of increasing crime on wildlands is that the number of law enforcement officers who patrol wildlands – game wardens, Forest Service LEO's, Natl. Park and BLM Rangers – is decreasing. Add to this problem that some members of Congress are pushing to entirely de-fund the Drug Enforcement Administration's marijuana eradication program, whose budget has already dropped from $18 million to $14 million. California received more than a third of the funds in 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/03/backcountry-drug-war/521352/
. And, currently in the US House of Representatives there is a bill that would abolish law enforcement officers in the USFS and BLM and turn things over to local sheriffs. Deputy sheriffs can enforce wildlife laws, but they have limited search procedures compared to game wardens, and some wildlife laws are federal, (in CA game wardens are also deputy US Marshalls), as well as who will pay for more officers. http://www.mensjournal.com/adventure/articles/new-house-bills-aim-to-sell-off-public-lands-and-to-get-rid-of-the-blm-and-us-forest-service-police-w463159
My bet is that unless more federal funding for wildlands protection is forthcoming, Lear Assets Management is the harbinger of what's to come.
— James A. Swan, PhD.