Dressed in camouflage fatigues and combat boots and dangling from a cable 150 feet below a hovering helicopter, the two agents dropped into a clearing near the bottom of a wooded slope.
One pulled out a satellite locating device for guidance as the other slashed at brush with a machete. They had to watch for traps - shotguns mounted on trees or mousetraps armed with shotgun shells which go off if the trap is triggered. As they trudged up the hill, someone spotted a "hooch," a makeshift, wooden shelter high in a tree.In less than a mile, they arrived at "the garden," surrounded by fine, black netting to protect it from wildlife. It's a big bust, but no one is arrested - not unusual in the day-to-day war on drugs in California's forests.
The officers and two similar teams came from across the state to spend eight weeks with a multi-agency task force known as the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting.
CAMP was formed in 1977 to reduce the amount of marijuana grown in California. It hires local sheriff's deputies, Justice Department agents and state Highway Patrol officers.
The agents - many of whom served in military intelligence or other undercover operations - take their jobs seriously. They carry survival kits. They're all armed with semi-automatic pistols.
"I get the satisfaction that I'm depriving them of something illegal," said Randy Rimmey as he yanked a 4-foot pot plant out of the ground and shook dirt from the roots. "I'm not here to decide if a law is morally correct. A law is a law."
Rimmey and 10 officers spent 12 hours on the job Tuesday about 20 miles southwest of Ukiah. This is prime pot-growing land: mountainous terrain fed by natural springs. They raided six gardens and collected 1,160 plants they estimated to be worth about $4.6 million.
Each area is named, photographed and assigned a case number. Evidence is gathered, plants are ripped from the ground, measured and counted.
Rimmey points out bugs on one plant's leaves and white spots of mold on its roots. "Root rot," he said. "This garden is overwatered. What a mess."
The agents have become experts at marijuana growing techniques. They know one grower's handiwork from another.
A running tally of their "kills" is painted on the side of a truck used to haul the plants away for burning or burial - one red marijuana leaf for 5,000 plants, one green leaf for 1,000 plants.
At this garden - planted on land owned by a private lumber company - they made no arrests. They find empty cans and bottles, pieces of clothing, a fertilizer container, but no one is nearby when they arrive.
In 300 raids this season, agents have made only about 60 arrests; CAMP's helicopter makes enough noise to warn people away.
"We know there's people growing marijuana who never get close to the garden. They're almost untouchable," said retired Madera County Sheriff Ovonval "Berk" Berkley.
Marijuana advocates say CAMP is a waste of money and succeeds only in pushing up pot prices and boosting foreign imports.
"We pay the state to destroy what could be a tax-paying crop," said Dale Gieringer, coordinator for California's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "They have an uncontrolled situation created by the laws they support."
Proposition 215, passed in 1996, legalized marijuana use for medical purposes. People who have AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and other illnesses may get their doctor's permission to use the drug and grow plants for personal use.
Marijuana remains the third most popular drug used recreationally, according to 1996 figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Only alcohol and tobacco are used more frequently. Seventy million Americans have smoked pot at some point in their lives, 10 million people consider themselves regular smokers and Californians alone consume $3 billion to $6 billion worth of marijuana annually, according to NORML.
In a hospitable environment where pot literally grows like a weed, the work by CAMP members barely makes a dent.
"There's so much out there it's unbelievable," Mendocino County Sheriff's deputy Bill Rutler said. "Every time I bury a ton of dope that's a ton of dope that's not getting smoked."
Officers joke that growers plant extra gardens specifically for CAMP to find.
"If they retain one of five gardens they're happy," Rimmey said. "They know we're here."