Marijuana growers, many believed to be affiliated with Mexican drug cartels, are aggressively expanding their illegal farming operations in the U.S., clearing land to plant pot in dozens of national forests from coast to coast.
Illicit cannabis farms on public land first sprang up in California more than a decade ago and remain a serious problem in that state. But in the past two years, the U.S. Forest Service has documented a rapid expansion of the practice..."They're moving across the country," said David Ferrell, director of law enforcement for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service.
With the expansion comes an increased risk to campers and hikers -- a particular concern this Labor Day weekend, as families converge on public land just as many cannabis crops are ready for harvest.
The propane tanks, stoves and trash left behind by pot farmers pose fire risks; such a camp is believed to have sparked a fire last month that burned 88,000 acres in California's Los Padres National Forest. And many pot patches are watched over by armed guards or booby-trapped. Some are remote, but others are near popular tourist sites, such as a pot farm discovered late last month in California's Sequoia National Park, a half-mile from a cave famed for its crystal formations.