Jerry Moore chuckles at a reference to him as the Eliot Ness of the Panhandle National Forest. But people who cultivate marijuana or operate mobile drug labs on public lands would do well to take the reference to heart.
Moore, the U.S. Forest Service special agent in charge of law enforcement in the 2.5 million-acre Panhandle National Forest, took the job last August. He's a veteran of the continuing drug eradication wars on federal lands in northern California.He said compared to California and Oregon, the problem in north Idaho is not nearly as widespread or as hazardous to honest people enjoying the wilds of the Panhandle. But he expects the problem will persist and perhaps increase.
"As in any drug enforcement, as we become more successful, so do the growers because we're always a step behind them," he said. Of particular concern to Moore is the increase in the number of methamphetamine labs being found on Forest Service lands everywhere.
"I think this is the coming thing," he said. "A lot of lab operations are highly mobile and they are looking for seclusion." He said the drugs produced by the labs are a threat, and the highly toxic chemical wastes that methamphetamine manufacturers dump in the wilderness pose serious hazards to streams and groundwater.
"We haven't had that many (drug labs) here, but I expect we're going to see some increasing numbers," Moore said.
Moore, along with Forest Service agents, investigates drug operations and conducts search-and-destroy missions on marijuana fields with the help of sheriffs and the Idaho Department of Law Enforcement's Bureau of Narcotics.
Lt. Wayne Longo, Department of Law Enforcement regional supervisor in northern Idaho, said that before recent discovery of a major growing operation near Bonners Ferry, a total of 1,108 marijuana plants had been seized this year. Growing operations have been both indoors and outdoors, and on public and private lands.
The Bonners Ferry operation was discovered after firefighters responded to a fire at a private ranch. Inside the house were the charred remains of two bodies.
In further investigation of the property, authorities discovered a booby-trapped building within a barn that contained about 2,000 marijuana plants in various stages of growth. A weapons cache of high-powered rifles, machine guns and pistols also were found.
In the national forest, Moore said, nine marijuana sites yielding a total of 322 plants, each with an estimated street value of $2,000, were discovered this year in the Fernan, Sandpoint and St. Maries districts.
Slim pickings, he admits, compared to the yield in the Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area in California where growers virtually took over a remote area until they were rooted out by a battalion of law enforcement officers.
But that doesn't mean there's little to be found. "We haven't been able to get out and really beat the bush to find all the gardens that are probably growing out there," Moore said. He explained that during this year's late summer, the best time for finding grow operations and conducting eradication efforts, most Forest Service personnel had their hands full dealing with one of the worst forest fire seasons ever.
Another reason for the low number of plants discovered this year was the drought. Marijuana requires a lot of water. Because most pot gardens are hidden away from water sources to minimize the chance of discovery, any additional water they receive must be hauled in.
"A lot of what we seized was withered away, so I think a lot of growers just gave up because it was too much work," Longo said.
So far, marijuana growing operations found in northern Idaho have been relatively free of booby traps compared to fields elsewhere. But, Moore said, "just about every grower you run into out in the field is armed with some kind of weapon." None of the gardens discovered in the Panhandle National Forest this year were booby-trapped.
However, he doesn't forget an incident in his years as operations commander in the federally sponsored Campaign Against Marijuana Planting in northern California. A hiker was maimed when he triggered a pipe bomb attached to a trip wire.
Longo recalls a raid on a 1,000-plant marijuana field near Hauser Lake in 1987 booby-trapped with treble fish hooks suspended at eye level.
Apart from that, Longo said, "We've found noisemakers but no explosive devices as yet - but we've been lucky." Both Longo and Moore agree that the shorter growing season in North Idaho may be the reason the problem is not as widespread here as it is elsewhere, but growers are finding ways around the climate.
Chief among the technological advances growers are using are hothouses, in which the plants get an early and healthy start.
The young plants are then transplanted outdoors and harvested before the first frost in September. Longo said growers also are developing new strains to meet the problems Mother Nature throws at them in North Idaho.
He cited an Afghan variety that withstands a "pretty good frost" and survives outdoors until mid-October, and "pygmy plants," which are produced by grafting and which yield high quantities of high-grade marijuana without the watering requirements of larger plants.
Despite the technology and equipment used to find and destroy drug operations in the wilderness, Longo and Moore say the hiker, fisherman, hunter or off-roader who stumbles onto a site is still the best source of information.
People who notice such things as gardening equipment or chemical containers in the woods, or who are confronted by someone who doesn't want them around, should note the location and notify authorities, they said.
"As far as equipment and law enforcement's response to (drug manufacturing operations), I think we've got that part well in hand. If there's anything we need more of, it's more information coming in."