SHINGLETOWN — On a cool, late-September morning on the outskirts of this Northern California town, two men board a helicopter in a cow pasture.

Each holds the title "special agent," but the agencies they represent are as different from one another as any two agencies could be.

Dave Burns sports a goatee and duck-hunter camouflage and works for the federal Bureau of Land Management. Ed Plantaric wears a military-style buzz cut and a pair of black, cupped goggles; his tan shirt is emblazoned with the gold-and-black badge of California's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement.

As a cluster of Holsteins stares at them,the helicopter lifts off and floats out of the tight, wooded valley. It sweeps over a sprawling patchwork of utility easements, twice-cut commercial timber holdings and 40-acre plots that are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. These shreds of federal land are largely unused and forgotten — at least by their owners, the American public.

The helicopter drifts sideways and then circles lower across a south-facing slope covered with manzanita and oak. Held tightly by seat belts, the men lean from the rear of the doorless craft, scanning a mottled canopy of green and brown.

"I've got dope," Plantaric's voice crackles through the headsets. The pilot banks, hesitates, and settles lower, as treetops thrash beneath the beating rotors.


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A powerful smell fills the helicopter cabin — musk and mint and lemongrass and freshly mowed lawn, all mixed together with a touch of sweetness. Below, what seemed to be a solid forest canopy is suddenly full of fissures. Under the trees, bright-green cannabis plants are everywhere.

The entire patch of scrubby no-man's land is a marijuana garden. Ganja. Bud. Cannabis. Boo. Green Sticky. Pot. Grass. Reefer. Mary Jane. Sweet Lucy. Herb. Call it what you like, this powerful psychoactive plant has become the newest gold mine on the West's public lands. Marijuana producers, dominated by Mexican drug rings, have spread to every viable forest, park and refuge up and down the foothills of the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada. In the past few years, gardens have been discovered on public lands as far inland as Idaho, Utah and Arizona.

The environmental impacts of this illegal, industrial-style agriculture are growing exponentially, as growers denude hillsides, dam creeks to irrigate their crops, spread pesticides and fertilizers, and leave behind literally tons of garbage and human waste.

At the same time, encounters between drug traffickers and the public are on the rise. In mid-October, three groups of hunters in the Angeles National Forest stumbled into marijuana gardens — and their camouflaged and heavily armed caretakers. In one case, a hunter was held against his will for a short period. When law enforcement officers returned to the garden, they were greeted with gunfire. While officers captured one grower, three others escaped, having already harvested and removed 3,000 plants.

How did things get to this point? Recent news stories have offered up a tidy explanation: They say the tightened border security that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks forced Mexican drug runners to move their growing operations inside the United States. But under examination, this theory falls apart: Law enforcement agents saw evidence of Mexican drug rings on the public lands at least as far back as the late 1980s. And they're still moving meth and cocaine across the border, apparently not discouraged by the tightened security.

The real roots of the problem are buried deeper, in the dark thickets of the drug war, where the commercial marijuana trade and federal drug policy intertwine.

Burns and his investigation team find the campsite where at least two growers lived. Nearby, they find a pit filled with trash and human waste. Bags of fertilizer and empty cans of rodent poison hint at this industry's environmental consequences. 

As the investigators scout for evidence, Plantaric's eradication crew moves through the rows of carefully tended plants with a tidal force, stepping over hand tools and rolls of irrigation tubing. The crew is known as Team 2 of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, a state organization that helps local and federal law enforcement with a problem that is spinning out of control. Within an hour, the team cuts several thousand plants and stacks them in nets. The helicopter hoists the bundles out to a drop spot several miles away, where deputies count and bind them as evidence. Eventually, the plants will be buried or burned.

CAMP has cut about 214,000 plants in Shasta County this year, putting the county at the top of the marijuana seizure list. But even though a recent raid in Redding nabbed one of the managers of the drug ring responsible for this garden and at least seven others like it, the growers all escaped.

"These guys are like rabbits," one deputy says. "They know every nook and cranny. We've never been out here before. And most of them are armed. So unless we can physically grab them, they get away.

The men who tended this garden probably arrived in the area in mid-April. They were most likely from Michoacan in southern Mexico, smuggled across the border by the jefe in Redding and his compatriots, and shuttled north through a series of safe houses. Morning, afternoon, evening, they worked the plots, leaving only to collect supplies dropped in burlap bags at pre-appointed times and places, hoping to survive here, undetected, until harvest time, when they'd get their paychecks.

On the trunk of a large conifer that sprouts like a giant beanstalk through the brush canopy, the gardeners have posted a card bearing the benevolent, green-robed image of St. Jude Thaddeus, a Roman Catholic saint. San Judas Tadeo is the patron saint of desperate times and difficult situations, and the gardeners are no doubt thinking of him right now. They are most likely hidden nearby, lying still and breathing lightly, making as little noise as possible, waiting for nightfall, when they can slip away. They may be near enough to hear the men hacking through the garden they labored over for an entire summer, and see the helicopter returning to carry their hard-won crop away.

This year, the war on weed hit a frenzied peak. CAMP, California's dope-cutting machine, added a fifth team and two helicopters to its forces, often dropping agents into remote gardens by helicopter cable and taking out tens of thousands of plants in a single day.

"When I started with CAMP in 1990, we were lucky to get 40,000 plants a season," Plantaric says. This year, the organization hacked down about 1.1 million plants, almost doubling its previous record. Seventy-two percent of that came off public lands, including 16 national forests, BLM lands and Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.

Jim Parker, the senior narcotics agent who oversees CAMP, says that more than 95 percent of the gardens bore the fingerprints of Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

"You would not believe some of the terrain where we're finding these gardens," Parker says. "And sometimes, we have to tell the helicopter pilots to stop looking, because we don't have the manpower to cut any more that day.

The basic aim of drug enforcement is to disrupt the market forces. It tries to do this in two ways: by putting a crimp on the supply of products, and by decreasing demand for those products. Bust a major dealer, and there will be fewer drugs on the street. Educate schoolchildren about the horrors of crack, or ecstasy, or weed, and put users in prison, and there will be fewer customers for the dealers.

That's the theory. But according to Peter Smith, it doesn't work. Smith is a political scientist from the University of California, San Diego who has been writing about federal drug policy for close to two decades. He says the nation has spent 25 years and $40 billion battling drugs but has barely touched the supply. If you adjust for inflation and increased potency, he says, the price of marijuana has barely budged.

Part of the problem is that there are innumerable ways to bring the weed to market, whether it's distributed from underground hydroponics labs in California, smuggled in from British Columbia, floated into Miami, trucked across the Mexican border — or slipped out from one of a thousand gardens on the national forests. Cut off one supply line, and five more open up. Even toppling the occasional kingpin or drug cartel won't noticeably affect the supply, says Mark Kleiman, a professor at UCLA's school of public policy.

"It's a little like saying that we can affect the amount of automobile driving by imprisoning the chairman of General Motors," Kleiman says. "General Motors can find a new chairman. And if General Motors were itself taken out, then Ford, Daimler Chrysler and Toyota will be happy to fill the gap."

On the demand side, the drug war has been just as ineffectual, says Smith: According to a 2004 survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 14.6 million Americans are regular marijuana users, meaning they used it in the past month. At least 3.4 million use it almost daily. According to Smith, Americans spend an estimated $11 billion on pot every year. At least some of that finances the expansive outdoor growing practices that are currently troubling the public lands.

And the animus of the war on weed is clearly in high-profile busts, such as the 2002 arrest of Ed Rosenthal. Rosenthal was growing marijuana for the city of Oakland, to supply patients who suffered from painful or terminal illnesses. This was allowed under a 1996 voter initiative, but when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state law in 2001, the feds wasted no time in asserting their authority.

"You have to ask, 'Where is the threat?'" LaNier says. "The threat is a Mexican guy carrying a gun and growing dope out there in the woods. Not a guy who's got 25 plants in his back yard. That may be illegal, but it's not who we need to go after."

John Horton, associate director for state and local affairs of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, begs to differ.

"We know that the public lands are (where) a significant percentage (of the marijuana is grown)," he says. "But what we don't want to do is focus on public lands and have it balloon on private lands. Eradication needs to be not only on public lands, but everywhere we find it."

It's another early morning, and CAMP's Team 2 is driving east out of Redding. A full-faced, yellow sun nests on the horizon line, filling the windshield of Plantaric's van with blazing brilliance.

Out the window, beneath the snowy flanks of Mount Shasta, is an ocean of farm country. A hundred and fifty years ago, waves of newcomers flooded into this region, drawn by ecstatic dreams of finding gold. But most of the gold pans turned up empty, and the state was ultimately settled by farmers, who built an empire of green.

Now there's another gold rush on, rooted in the state's fertile earth. Men are flocking to El Norte to seek their fortune in a desperate lottery that may bring them the wealth of their dreams, or land them in jail. So, far the odds are still pretty good — a lot better than striking gold.

The author reports from Paonia, Colo. High Country News (www.hcn.org) is an award-winning newsmagazine that covers the West's communities and natural-resource issues from Paonia, Colo.