Pot Growers Start Early At Wildlife Area

On a training exercise in the western Columbia Basin earlier this spring, Washington Department Fish & Wildlife officers discovered “the earliest recorded growing effort in that area yet” when they stumbled onto a marijuana growing plot on state game land.

WDFW Deputy Chief Mike Cenci, who was in on the raid, says it occurred near Royal City on April 30.

“You always prepare for the unknown, but did we expect to detect a grow? No, we were surprised,” he said this morning.

As two teams of well-armed officers practiced moving through the thick cover, they came across the site as well as an alleged grower cooking a cup of noodle soup, Cenci says. The man got away, but left enough personal information behind in a tent that a warrant was later issued for his arrest.

Cenci describes the location as in almost “impenetrable” Russian olive groves.

“You can hardly see in front of you — your field of view is like 10 feet,” Cenci says, noting that it’s also very difficult to sneak around in the thickets. “Move an inch, break a twig, make a sound.”

Officers became suspicious when one spotted a boot track, Cenci says. At the camp they found 1,700 to 2,000 seed cups with five seeds apiece as well as a mile of irrigation line.

“The grove of trees had been hollowed out in several areas in preparation for planting,” he says. “The camp was fully outfitted with propane tanks, a large supply of food, stove, numerous large bags of fertilizers, several hand tools and two rifles.”

WDFW OFFICERS ARMED WITH MP 5s, GLOCK .45s AND PLENTY OF AMMO POSE WITH SOME OF THE 1,700 MARIJUANA SEED CUPS DISCOVERED ON STATE WILDLIFE LAND IN THE COLUMBIA BASIN. (WDFW)

He calls the Lower Crab Creek and Desert Wildlife Areas in the western Columbia Basin “good habitat for this kind of activity” due to their thick cover and relative remoteness.

The area is also home to several quality trout fishing lakes as well as waterfowl and upland bird hunting in the fall and winter.

Mexican drug cartels are believed to be funding the illicit farms. It’s yet to be seen how many of the illegal plants Washington law enforcement officials will pull this year, but if trends hold up, those discovered by Cenci’s officers could kick off a record haul. With increased efforts to tackle the problem since the early 2000s, the number seized in raids on outdoor fields has gone from 6,500 in 2001 to 135,000 in 2005 to 296,000 in 2007 to 589,000 last year, according to articles by the Seattle PI, Yakima Herald-Republic and Spokane Spokesman-Review.

It’s not just a matter of counting up the plants, burning or helicoptering them out and being done with it. Pesticides are used to control bugs, thousands of pounds of trash must be packed out and it’s not like Honey Bucket is coming out and servicing the plantations.

“These guys cause some serious environmental damage,” Cenci says.

While a 2008 AP article says Washington ranks second in outdoor marijuana growing, and a USA Today story later that year says that up to 80 percent of the illicit crop is grown on state and federal lands, Cenci vows to keep law enforcement pressure on the problem in Washington.

“We can’t eradicate dope, but we can try to keep it off our lands. We’re going to be aggressive about going after them,” he says.

The state offers a reward of up to $5,000 for information on marijuana grows. An anonymous tip line has been set up at (800) 388-4769.

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