This is peak growing season in the Angeles National Forest - and we're not just talking about trees. That's why state and federal drug enforcement teams visit it and other public lands often in the summer. KPCC followed them during a recent raid on a marijuana growing spot.
We hike into a place that's so backcountry, agents from the U.S. Forest Service and officers from the L.A. Sheriff's Department keep checking with each other to find the way. "Is there anything in the wash, there any footprints I missed?"
Pavement gave way to dirt, then to a bumpy gravel fire road. The trek on foot continues for several miles, sometimes up a hill steep enough that even experienced hikers press their hands into ground cover for balance.
"If you go down the wash, it takes you to the road. ... OK, let's get back in the wash."
That said, this summer the Forest Service has warned visitors to the Angeles about just how close their hiking trails are to marijuana grow sites – and to the farmers who guard them. Before we get to camp, we see plants. The small ones are three to four feet high.
Standing a grow site found by authorities, there's some propane and diesel, they're making jerky on a tree and their clothes are still there. Authorities reported a runner, somebody running away from the site, who they didn't catch.
Arrests are rare. So are weapons. Agents carry assault rifles to secure the area.
Grow site farmer-guards don't often leave their guns behind. They do leave behind their provisions.
At one site, there's chiles, onions, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cans of El Paso chiles, corn and... mayonnaise. There are eggs in a big Miracle-Gro plant container. Ritz crackers and raisins. Lots of beans. There's a small camp stove with a kettle and a pot on it, sugar and tortillas, tortillas, tortillas, tortillas. It's all underneath a sleeping bag tarp.
There's sleeping bags and a campsite up above with lots of propane. There's a shower underneath a manzanita tree. And there's a really strong smell of pot plants.
"So they cut the main leaves off," an agent says. "Thin them out a little bit, so the nutrients go to the bud. When it's time to start harvesting, they'll hack it off and hang it. When it's all done, they'll have their bud to dry, they won't have any of these leaves or stems on it."
We promised not to identify agents we followed; they work undercover. This guy, muscular, shiny-skulled, took a little knife in his big hands to point out plant biology and tricks of the trade he's picked up on raids.
"WD-40? That's for the scissors. WD-40 eats the stickiness out of it. Did you see some small scissors in there?" The reply: "Yeah, they're stuck in the tree, like stabbed in there."
Another agent pulls a machete out of a leg sheath. Each man keeps his own count of pulled plants; the lead officer tallies it all at the end. An officer calls out "Last one!"
Saws take down a small tree or two, clearing the way for an airlift. The helicopter makes several trips. Its first load is an enormous green wrapped tarp of marijuana plants, about the size of a smart car.
"On the way the helicopters show the weight of their load," an agent says. "These loads are usually between three- to seven-hundred pounds of marijuana. After that, the next thing is get the chemicals out: the gasoline, propane, the illegal fertilizers that are out here, that are brought in from Mexico. If we get time for that, we'll do that, and then the next thing is get the camp out. The food, sleeping bags, tents, you name it, we try taking everything out."
At the command post, the copter drops a net of evidence – pot plants, and yards of irrigation hose. Our agent from the raid stands to the side as half a dozen men in yellow fire shirts stuff pot and trash into a truck. The helicopter returns. The collection effort is rhythmic – even routine.
"The season starts anywhere from March through end of October so, they start growing that early in that season," an agent says. "We try to get plants early, it's a lot less work for us. No way we can leave six- to seven-foot plants in here that are already full of flowering buds."
This day's haul of 11,000-plus plants accounts for about a tenth of what agents have pulled from the Angeles National Forest so far this year. A federal drug interdiction task force reported that agents uprooted almost 8 million plants from public lands a couple of years ago. The report's authors estimate that's no more than a fifth of what's out there.