JORDAN VALLEY, Ore. – Malheur County Sheriff Andrew Bentz eases his white Ford Explorer across a shallow, gurgling stream in a high-desert arroyo.
“We have marijuana gardens north and south of us for a couple of hundred yards in both directions,” Bentz whispers as he stops the unmarked SUV beside a tangle of willows along Little White Horse Creek.
Within earshot are probably a dozen armed growers working for a Mexican drug family, he says. They have a camouflaged lookout on a nearby rocky knob with a commanding view of nearby roads.
It’s springtime and that means pot growers are making their way back to southeast Oregon. They’re setting up camps, preparing soil for planting and laying out miles of PVC drip-irrigation lines. It also means counties are gearing up for a new season of aggressive raids on pot gardens.
Bentz is one of many rural Oregon sheriffs overwhelmed with the difficulties and expense of finding and cracking down on huge pot grow sites. Some of them are cautioning ranchers, anglers, hikers and other backcountry travelers to steer clear of remote areas that could hide the plantations.
“This gets pretty personal,” Bentz said. “This spoils the country for me. If you go out there, you are possibly subjecting yourself to an armed encounter, assault with a firearm, coercion or kidnapping.”
After dark here, nondescript vans, SUVs and canopy-topped pickups, many with stolen license plates, crawl along narrow, unpaved roads, transporting thousands of cartons of fragile, nursery-raised marijuana seedlings, sacks of Miracle-Gro and other lawn fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, groceries and firearms. At sunup, the traffic disappears, leaving only tire tracks.
The grows aren’t necessarily increasing in number but in size, said Chris Gibson, director of a federal program that targets drugs in high-intensity trafficking areas.
After a record seizure of 300,000 pot plants statewide in 2007, the number fell to about 81,000 in 2008 because heavy snowpacks in the high country shortened the season, but then last year authorities seized 228,000 plants valued at up to $2,100 each from about 40 outdoor pot gardens across Oregon, Gibson said.
Last year’s take represented a $451 million loss to drug cartels – most believed to be based in Mexico – that have moved operations to Oregon to thwart tougher enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border, he said. Law officers arrested 70 people during last year’s raids, most of them Mexican nationals.
“We put a huge dent in it, but I don’t think we are done,” said Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer, who contends the raids eradicated all the large grows in his county last year. “I think they will be back, and they’ll be smarter. We are gearing up. We are prepared.”
Palmer plans to post handbills along forest roads this summer cautioning the public: “This area known for illegal marijuana grows.” The handbills will include Spanish-language warnings to growers that they risk being caught, he said.
Last year, eight of the pot gardens were discovered when people stumbled upon them.
Until a few years ago, the cartels planted the gardens and left, returning every couple of weeks to check on them. But the operations have become more sophisticated and intensive, with growers on site 24 hours a day, tending irrigation lines, pruning plants and killing pests that might damage the plants.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokesman Michael Campbell in Portland said many of the marijuana seizures are on BLM land.
“That is causing significant problems for us,” Campbell said. BLM workers are instructed to back out of the area and call police.