The federal government plans to escalate its eradication of marijuana plantations in the backwoods of national forests this year, beginning in California with the deployment of larger strike teams and the controversial launching of miniature, remote-controlled spy planes to outfox growers, a top Bush administration official said Thursday.
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey said an increasing number of pot growers financed by Mexican drug cartels are taking cover in the forest, particularly in the southern Sierra Nevada.
"We believe there are as many of them working marijuana gardens on national forests in California as there are Forest Service employees in the state -- upwards of 5,000," said Rey, who oversees the agency.
According to Rey, the administration decided to disclose the planned surge in forest surveillance after The Bee and Associated Press persisted in questioning U.S. Forest Service officials about a $100,000 purchase of two battery-powered "unmanned aerial vehicles."
"We wanted to (clarify) what they are being used for, and what they aren't being used for," Rey said. "Random hunters aren't being spied on by their government."
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit group representing whistle-blowers in government, called attention to the robo-planes earlier this week as Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell appeared before two U.S. Senate committees to justify the agency's annual budget request.
"A cash-starved Forest Service is buying glitzy hardware with zero justification," the group's director, Jeff Ruch, said in a press release, adding that "the use of spy technology in the domestic U.S. should not be undertaken lightly."
The Forest Service's Law Enforcement and Investigations unit bought the SkySeer craft from a California defense contractor that designed them for law enforcement to videotape suspects from close range without their knowledge, agency documents show.
Rey said marijuana growers scatter at the sound of piloted planes and helicopters.
The SkySeer runs quietly and its tiny video camera can resolve whether a person is armed with a handgun from 250 feet in the air -- high enough for the 4-foot-long craft to become invisible from the ground, according to its inventor, Sam De La Torres.
"You can really sneak up on people," said De La Torres, who works at Octatron, a Los Angeles County firm that specializes in military surveillance gear.
Tighter drug enforcement along U.S. borders has led Mexican organized crime gangs to farm marijuana here, primarily on public land, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The backwoods of the national forests have become the hiding grounds of choice because of the availability of water for irrigation and the aerial cover afforded by the dense canopies.
In 2000, the Forest Service reported the eradication of several marijuana gardens in Hawaii, Kentucky, Tennessee and California, including the Shasta Trinity National Forest where agents seized about 4,300 marijuana plants at one location, according to the DEA.
Since then, law enforcers have uprooted up to 6 million marijuana plants in California national forests, Rey said.
The drones will allow agents to assess potential dangers before making arrests, he said.
Once the plane's front-mounted camera finds its target, operators can switch the craft to circling mode and activate a telephoto camera that transmits wirelessly to ground crews, De La Torres said.
Operators pilot the craft by clicking and dragging markers across maps on a laptop computer. The plane can fly one hour on its battery charge.
One of the two Forest Service-purchased models has a "thermal camera" to record heat signatures at night, he said.
Ruch, the employee group representative, said he learned about the aerial monitoring devices from Jack Gregory, a recently retired Forest Service official, and filed a federal Freedom of Information request to find out why the agency wanted to use drones.
Gregory, who supervised agency law enforcement for 32 years, said he cannot see how spy planes would give agents an edge on criminals in the forest.
"Finding meth labs and marijuana plantations in the national forest is not hard to do. We used real airplane overflights," said Gregory, who last worked as an agent in charge of enforcement in the Southeast.
"Our problem is we don't have enough officers to take them down."