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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

California Marijuana Growers Using Public Lands

Aired June 9, 2003 - 20:43   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Summertime is more than hot weather and big crowds for America's national parks. It's also the growing season -- the marijuana growing season. Believe it or not, almost 60 percent of the marijuana plants eradicated in California last year were found on public land. And as CNN's Frank Buckley reports, park rangers are sometimes way over their heads when they try to fight it.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Soon the meadows and the woods of Sequoia National Park will be teaming with visitors -- summer, the park's busiest season. They'll come to see the General Sherman tree, the park's wandering black bears, its creeks and rivers.

But Sequoia's busiest season will coincide with the busiest time of the year for some most unwelcome visitors, as well: marijuana growers. Last year's the park saw an explosion in the number of illegally planted marijuana stalks. Some 34,000 plants were removed.

CAROLE SMITH, PARK VISITOR: This is public land. It belongs to the people. It's not where marijuana should be grown.

BUCKLEY: Park Service special agents who discovered the pot plantations found sophisticated irrigation systems with miles of piping and hoses. And in the camps where workers stayed, there were weapons.

Chief naturalist Bill Tweed says some visitors to the remote wilderness areas have already come in contact with armed growers.

BILL TWEED, SEQUOIA CHIEF NATURALIST: We find weapons. We find automatic weapons. We found AK-47s. This stuff gets defended. A visitor stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time could be injured, could be killed.

BUCKLEY: Park Service Special Agent Al DeLaCruz and two other highly armed agents took us into the area to show us some of the abandoned camps. Along the way we found nurseries complete with growing cups and fertilizer bags. We saw how the growers dam drainages and divert water to irrigate fields of pot plants.

AL DELACRUZ, SPECIAL AGENT: They're depriving from here on down, you know, vegetation of -- and wildlife of the water.

BUCKLEY: DeLaCruz kept his face hidden for security reasons. The growers, he and other law enforcement officials believe, are members of the Mexican drug cartels known for their violence.

After three hours of hiking along impossibly rugged terrain, we arrived at one of the grower's camps.

(on camera): Everything's still left behind here. You can see the tools that they used, the pesticides and the equipment that they used in the growing process.

Over here, some of the utensils they left behind -- the skillets and the pots from the kitchen area where they cooked.

Back on this side, you can see they constructed a hammock where obviously, one of the growers was sleeping. And, down here, one of the garbage pits in what's supposed to be a pristine wilderness area of a national park.

(voice-over): The defiling of this national park also involving poaching and the polluting of waters with chemicals.

(on camera): Is it offensive to you?

DELACRUZ: Absolutely. Totally offensive to me. You know, on a personal level and as an employee of the National Park Service.

BUCKLEY: And officials say it is not an activity confined to Sequoia National Park, nor one that shows signs of easing up. It means this summer, park rangers will have two jobs: protecting park visitors while looking out for pot growers.

Frank Buckley, CNN, Sequoia National Park, California.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Amazing.

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