Marijuana producers appear to be becoming more ambitious about the size of their crops - and planting them in public.
As marijuana farms expand into multimillion-dollar businesses, authorities say the perpetrators are more likely to confront intruders with violence.
"That's the alarming part," said Oconto County Sheriff Mike Jansen, whose department in June 2008 dismantled a marijuana farm with 9,000 plants in Nicolet National Forest in the town of Riverview.
A hunter tipped off police after stumbling upon the illicit crop and two caretakers who were never captured.
It happened again last month in Shawano County.
A visitor to the state-owned Navarino Wildlife Area spotted a marijuana farm that included 8,000 plants, some of which had grown more than 6 feet tall.
Capt. Tom Tuma of the Shawano County Sheriff's Department said his office is taking steps to caution people about the potential risks of civilians investigating marijuana crops on their own.
Although no one has been arrested in connection with the Navarino operation, Tuma suspects it was the work of experienced drug dealers from outside the area. In addition to the bountiful crop, the compound included living quarters, irrigation systems, and work areas that were meticulously camouflaged.
"These folks are practiced," Tuma said. "We're not talking about local growers.
"We are looking at organized criminal activity."
Police believe sophisticated marijuana dealers have moved into Wisconsin in the past couple of years with large-scale outdoor growing operations of the sort more commonly associated with California and other western states.
David Spakowicz, director of criminal field operations for the state Department of Justice, said the perpetrators have staked out remote public sites, such as large parks, in an effort to avoid detection and accountability.
He also believes outsiders are responsible for many of the largest farms and added that drug dealers typically will select a site and then pay a couple of employees to tend the crop from spring until fall.
With each plant generally yielding a pound of marijuana worth $1,000 or more on the street, an operation like the one found in Navarino easily can be worth millions of dollars.
Wisconsin is not the only Midwestern state being targeted for marijuana growing in recent years, Spakowicz said.
"This is part of a national trend," he said. "And it hit us pretty hard last year and this year."
According to state statistics, the number of outdoor marijuana plants eradicated state-wide jumped from fewer than 10,000 a year to more than 36,000 last year and 17,000 this year before the Navarino operation was uncovered.
Investigators said the Navarino enterprise was among the most sophisticated they have ever seen.
Before planting the crop, the unknown perpetrators cleared large areas of trees and used some of the timber to erect tents and tarps for living quarters and processing areas.
Marijuana was found growing in several locations within the estimated 15,000-acre wildlife refuge, which is maintained by the state Department of Natural Resources.
Kay Brockman-Mederas, senior wildlife biologist for the DNR, said state employees unknowingly did routine maintenance work near the marijuana farm all summer long.
She expressed relief that no employees accidentally encountered the illicit farmers.
"It's just incredible," she said. "It's pretty amazing that that was happening under our noses."
Brown County has not been immune to the problem.
In September 2008, police uncovered more than 400 marijuana plants growing on private property adjacent to the Izaak Walton League conservation site in Bellevue.
Volunteers from the private conservation group alerted police after becoming suspicious about men roaming the area at strange hours.
Octavio Ramirez, 25, of Bellevue, was eventually convicted and sentenced to three years in prison on felony drug charges stemming from the operation.
Chief Deputy John Gossage of the Brown County Sheriff's Department said even though it was relatively small at 400 plants, it was likely the county's largest outdoor marijuana farm ever uncovered.
With more open space in outlying areas like Shawano County, Gossage said, "It's easier to grow in a rural area and not draw attention."
Shawano County officials last year found about 7,000 marijuana plants growing on private property south of Gresham in the town of Herman.
A suspect was arrested in that case, but he was deported to Mexico before facing charges here.
Tuma said officials are convinced that although the plants are gone for now, whatever criminal element has brought large marijuana farms to the area has not been eradicated.
"It's a growing problem," he said. "You're going to hear more about it."
November 15, 2009