Hunters who are planning to utilize public lands this season should be mindful that illicit activities may be taking place in areas they will be hunting. In recent years, marijuana-growing operations have been found on state and federal public lands from California to Pennsylvania and many states in between. And the problem doesn’t seem to be going away.
Pennsylvania Game Commission Southwest Regional Director R. Matthew Hough announced last week that charges were recently filed against two individuals for growing marijuana on State Game Land (SGL) 117 in Smith Township, Washington County.
On June 7, Washington County Wildlife Conservation Officer (WCO) Daniel Sitler and Deputy WCO James Lorch, while on routine patrol on SGL 117, encountered two individuals who were acting suspiciously during the brief conversation.
“After this odd exchange, we decided to try and determine what they had been doing while visiting SGL 117,” WCO Sitler said. “We back-tracked where they had been and soon discovered 21 marijuana plants planted in thick vegetation along a Game Commission food plot.”
Following this discovery, the officers used video surveillance technology to establish the connection between the suspected individuals and the marijuana plants.
“The Game Commission has a long history and tradition of passing down our investigative techniques from one generation of Wildlife Conservation Officers to the next through our training structure,” said Scott W. Tomlinson, Game Commission Southwest Region Law Enforcement Supervisor. “In recent years, we’ve been able to incorporate new technologies, such as the use of newly-developed surveillance equipment, to our list of tools used to solve these types of crimes.
“As similar sites have been known to be booby-trapped, this type of activity poses a safety threat to both the public that use our State Game Lands, and agency employees, such as Food and Cover Corps workers, who work there on a daily basis developing food plots and wildlife habitat.”
After consulting the Washington County District Attorney’s office and the Washington County Drug Task Force, WCO Sitler filed charges against Joshua M. Morrissey, 35, of Cuddy, and Robert N. Hoff, 32, of Canonsburg. Arrest warrants were issued for these defendants charging them with felony counts under Title 35 (The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, Section 780-113 (a) 30) for the manufacture, delivery, possession with intent to manufacture or deliver a controlled substance, and (Section 780-113 (a) 16) possession of a controlled substance.
Additionally, WCO Sitler filed charges under Title 34 (Game and Wildlife Code) for the unlawful planting of marijuana on State Game Lands.
All charges were filed before District Judge Gary Havelka, of Burgettstown. Both Morrissey and Hoff were arraigned and lodged in the Washington County prison pending the posting of bond. A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Oct. 29, on all charges.
In the West, public land is being used by dangerous drug cartels as an out-of-the-way haven for vast marijuana-growing operations. In 2008, the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement (BNE), the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other participants in the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) reporting seizing a record 5.2 million marijuana plants in California. Of that number, more than 3.5 million, or almost 70 percent, were eradicated from state and federal public lands.
“Our forests and public lands cannot and will not be allowed to become safe havens for Mexican drug cartels operating massive marijuana cultivations. These criminal enterprises pose great risk to those simply seeking to enjoy these lands in the manner for which they were intended,” said McGregor Scott, a U.S. attorney in California.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office reported that it seized an estimated $14 billion in marijuana last year alone, headlined by its 116,000-plant bust in the mountains of the Angeles National Forest in August 2008. Most of the marijuana that was seized was found on public lands. In many instances, those pot fields were guarded by armed members of drug cartels.
“Each year more marijuana is seized from California’s public lands,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Javier F. Peña. “It destroys our national forests and threatens the safety of the residents and visitors who seek to enjoy California’s natural treasures. Only with collaborative law enforcement efforts will we be able to make an impact against this serious problem.”
The problem of public lands being threatened by massive marijuana farms isn’t isolated to California. In late August of this year, law enforcement officials in Colorado seized 14,500 marijuana plants in the Pike National Forest near Deckers, Colo.
“These drug trafficking organizations are operating, and are a significant problem, on our national lands nationwide,” said U.S. Forest Service Special Agent in Charge Gill Quintana. “We are seeing this illegal activity from the West Coast to the East Coast. We are now beginning to see these organizations migrate to our national lands in Colorado and we believe it is because of the law enforcement pressure they are experiencing elsewhere. The impacts are numerous—resource damage to the lands due to clearing the areas to prepare the garden site, trash left behind, chemicals used to grow the crop can seep into the watershed, and the public safety issues associated with recreating public coming in contact with these organizations while they are operating on our national lands.”
As such illegal activities become increasingly common, hunters should be on the lookout for suspicious individuals and activity while afield this fall—and be mindful of the fact that the woods may not be as safe of a place as they once were. Hunters should contact their local law enforcement officials immediately if they run across any illegal activities taking place on public or private lands.