LAKEWOOD, Wis. - The silence of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest is broken only by the sound of Jeff Seefeldt's boots as he walks toward a clearing in the deep woods.
Seefeldt, a district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, points out the trees and brushes that were cut down to make room for an illicit crop and piled into a makeshift fence meant to keep animals and human intruders out. He gestures toward the creek from which water was hauled to keep thousands of marijuana plants growing.
This spot is a reminder of a new danger in Wisconsin's north woods: large marijuana-growing operations tended by armed illegal immigrants from Mexico. The first such site was discovered in the 1.5-million-acre national forest in 2008. Similar operations have been discovered every year since then.
"I'm very concerned about it," Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen says. The problem in his state, he says, is "as bad as anywhere in the country." Most people arrested have been illegal immigrants from Mexico with connections in California, he says, and their operations are "consistent with drug-trafficking organizations out of Mexico."
In the most recent Chequamegon-Nicolet bust in August, federal prosecutors charged seven people with manufacturing marijuana with the intent to distribute it. More than 8,000 plants worth $8 million were seized. Their cases are pending.
Earlier this year, four Mexican citizens were sentenced to federal prison for their involvement in a conspiracy to manufacture marijuana in the national forest. They were arrested in an August 2011 raid after hunters discovered their grow site the previous fall.
To Seefeldt, it is more than a crime. "It gives me a disgust in my stomach that people come here with no respect for the land, no respect for the people that use it, no respect for the resources," he says.
Authorities were tipped off by a fisherman in the latest case. Law enforcement officials then flew over the area and spotted several growing sites. The criminal complaint says investigators set up digital cameras to monitor activity and installed tracking devices on vehicles driven to the marijuana growing operations. When the site was raided, bags full of marijuana processed for distribution were seized.
David Spakowicz, director of field operations for the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation's eastern region, says the state once thought it was "immune" from the sort of marijuana operations that have long existed in California and other Western states. He hopes Wisconsin's policy, which he describes as "we're not only going to take your plants, we're going to arrest you," will soon be a deterrent.
Since 2010, there have been 32 arrests in connection with marijuana grow sites in Wisconsin's only national forest, a state forest, state wildlife area and on private property. Weapons were found in all but one of those cases, Spakowicz says.
In the last couple of years, the growers have changed their business model, he says. Instead of using a single, large growing site, they plant in many smaller spaces to help avoid detection. They also are moving deeper into the forest; a 2010 site that was raided was just a few hundred feet from a road.
The way the sites are managed follows a pattern, Spakowicz says. Workers are recruited and brought to Wisconsin to plant and tend the crops. They rarely leave the site and sleep in tents or makeshift shelters. "We've had some workers tell us, 'I was supposed to come to Green Bay to work in a restaurant,'" and some don't even know what state they're in, he says. They don't get paid until the crop is harvested and are told little about other aspects of the operation.
Spakowicz says growing marijuana inside the U.S. makes economic sense to drug traffickers: There's no risk of detection at the U.S.-Mexico border, as there is for marijuana grown in Mexico, and because the drug is distributed to nearby cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis, there's less a of a chance of being caught transporting it.
The damage left behind can be dramatic. Garbage, the carcasses of poached deer, poisons used to keep animals from harming the crop, pesticides and fertilizers make a mess and can harm the soil and streams. It can take years for trees hacked down to make room for the plants to be replaced with new growth.
Seefeldt says brush removed from stream banks so water can be siphoned to the grow sites can alter water temperatures, affecting the delicate trout that are plentiful here. Those streams, he says, "will take awhile to heal."
Van Hollen says the state will continue to ramp up efforts to crack down on the problem. "We want to take these criminals off the streets, make sure they're held accountable," he says. "Eventually that's going to (be) a deterrent."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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