The National Park Service is encountering a problem that is very seldom seen by park visitors, yet it still represents a threat not only to the wild resources in the parks, but to the law enforcement capabilities of the rangers which protect them. The problem is drugs, specifically the criminals who grow it, transport it, and consume it.
The story starts in a most ordinary fashion. Just two weeks ago, a driver got caught driving too fast along a winding road. This particular road happens to pass through a northern section of Olympic National Park, along the shores of Lake Crescent. The park ranger who pulled over the driver discovered that the car contained a half pound of marijuana, half pound of methamphetamine, and a quarter pound of cocaine, to go with $16,000 in cash also found in the car. When the loot was discovered, the driver made a dash for the forest, only to be caught moments later.
But the drug story in Olympic runs deeper than the obvious antics of single hapless drug runner. Drug consumers cause real damage to park resources in search of an easy buck. It doesn't happen often, perhaps several times a year, park rangers will pull over pick-up trucks loaded down with plants. Not marijuana plants, but common park plants like Salal, mosses, and sometimes even trees. These are folks caught illegally plant poaching; picking off common plants that can be sold quickly for cash. The cash, it is widely assumed, is then used to feed the poacher's drug habit. Some of the mosses stolen from the park may have taken decades to mature in the forest. Preventing this type of crime is difficult. One officer told me, he keeps the location of some moss draped trees a secret in an attempt to preserve the trees from the night-time raiders.
In California the illegal drug operations in our parks are far more sophisticated and dangerous. Just days ago, in a report from Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, in the forested hills near Redding, CA, officers raided an area where 6,428 marijuana plants were being cultivated. This was an organized operation which included a home for the grower who was captured while he was cooking breakfast.
Similar marijuana growing operations have been a problem for park rangers in Yosemite National Park as well as Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The wet, steep, protected slopes found in the Sierra Nevada back country have provided perfect growing conditions for a network of marijuana gardens. The operations are run by Mexican-affiliated drug cartels, and are protected by guards with guns. A park ranger, describing the sophisticated nature of the remote operations said, "It's camps, it's gardens, it's living areas, it's communications, it's guarding, it's cultivating, it's trafficking, it's moving, with a little fishing on the side. They've got it all here, they've really got it worked out." The value of the captured marijuana from the parks top hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Fighting the drug war in the parks could not be a more dangerous job for our National Park rangers. In 2002, near the Mexican border in Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, law enforcement ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed in the line of duty pursuing two men suspected in a drug-related quadruple murder. Kris was just 28 years old. The year he was killed, rangers had seized 13,000 pounds of marijuana in Organ Pipe Cactus, all of it smuggled in from Mexico.
These drug operations and the battle to stop them happen largely out of the public eye. The drug growers and traffickers succeed if their operations are kept secret. It is very rare that travelers exploring the park visitors' centers, short nature loops, and winding roads would ever directly encounter the drug problem. It is the park rangers that work behind the scenes, often under dangerous conditions, to stop what is not just illegal, but harmful to the most sensitive and protected landscapes of the National Parks.
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