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The Secret Life of Drugs in Parks

Moss in Olympic National Park; "sometimes drywall" photo via Flickr

Moss, like the kind pictured here, is sometimes poached by criminals looking to make a fast buck to feed their drug habit. Photo via Flickr

I was inspired recently to write an article about the problems drugs bring to the parks when I visited Olympic National Park earlier this summer. As recreational visitors to the national parks, we may not be aware of the battle behind the scenes to keep drugs out of the parks. I was told a story by a long-time law enforcement ranger that surprised me, and made me realize the burden to the resource they represent.

In my most recent article written for the newsletter, "Pot Growers Put Parks at Risk, Rangers on Alert", I relay that story told to me. In a nutshell, drug users looking for an easy buck have discovered that they can harvest moss, salal, and even trees to sell quickly on the black market for drug money. In one night, they can poach every bit of the hanging mosses from trees like the Big Leaf Maple that would have taken many generations to grow. It is for this reason, he told me, he keeps the location of some particularly mossy (and easily accessible by car) groves a secret, with the hope that trees will remain protected from these criminals.

The drug story is very current in parks, and frequently pops up in news articles. In the Frommer's piece, I reference a drug bust in Olympic, a raid in Whiskeytown, and growing operations in Yosemite, all of which have occurred in the last month. Thanks to contributor "Merryland" for bringing the Whiskeytown raid to our attention.


We did a story in 2005 on what it took a volunteer group to clean up one relatively small marijuana garden in a California state park: The WildeBeat number 19: Restoring a Park Gone to Pot

(I suppose that Kurt and Jeremy are going to get tired of my pointing out shows I've done in their blog comments, but this is on-topic.)
The WildeBeat "The audio journal about getting into the wilderness"
Download the MP3 programs or subscribe to the podcast at...

Me? Tired of you sharing your stories here? No way! I'm so glad you have added the link. You are correct, it is very on-topic, and it really helps tell the story here. I didn't discover your program until about episode 50, so I wasn't aware of that particular audio program.

Olympic National Park (WA)
Multi-Year Drug Investigation Concludes With Arrests, Seizures

On Tuesday, August 28th, investigators from an interagency narcotics enforcement team that included NPS personnel culminated an investigation of several years duration into a major drug trafficking organization operating along the northwest coast of Washington. Investigators from numerous local Olympic Peninsula agencies worked with agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the National Park Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration to make simultaneous arrests of the leaders and conspirators of this organization and execute search warrants of their residences. During these raids, the organization’s top leaders were arrested, including five illegal Mexican nationals. Over two-and-a-half pounds of crystal methamphetamine, a half pound of cocaine, a half pound of marijuana, four firearms, and more than $26,000 in cash were seized. All arrestees were transported to Tacoma, Washington, for their initial hearing and were turned over to the U.S. Marshals Service. The U.S. Attorney is considering the charges to be filed against those arrested. Another member of the organization was arrested in a traffic enforcement operation in the park on August 24th (click on “More Information” for a copy of that report). Over a half pound of marijuana, a half pound of methamphetamine and a quarter pound of cocaine were seized in that arrest. The total amount of drugs and money taken off the street on the Olympic Peninsula as a result of this investigation comes to over $40,000 in cash and several pounds of methamphetamine and marijuana. The street value of the methamphetamine alone has been placed at over $108,000. [Submitted by Barb Maynes, Public Affairs Officer]

I am an Olympic Peninsula local, and have enjoyed the Park as my backyard for over 50 years. As a youth, and at times as an adult, I have picked salal and swordferns, gathered wild mushrooms, peeled cascara bark, collected polypores, stuffed gunny bags with moss, and practiced other so-called forest-byproduct activities.

I like it, quite a bit. Though it is not my favorite word ... it is good karma. In this respect, such work resembles tree planting (the Mother of All Brutal But Good Labors). It is very demanding, and the reward is downright pitiful, until one has trained, conditioned & inured herself. But it is very cool, to walk into the woods and do something that is productive, using only your own hands and (considerable) wits & skill.

But both the industry and the culture have problems. The industry is very 'old school', and has manipulated the markets and the pickers for generations. This difficulty has attracted the stern attention of the Washington State Legislature, and other State & Federal bodies. We anticipate improvements, possibly dramatic.

The culture of picking has a severe image & esteem problem. People who do this work are near the bottom of the social echelon. To 'stoop' to picking stuff in the woods, is not an option a person undertakes lightly. There are 'defenses' that will have to be maintained, socially, and internally.

Yes, some pickers will be chronic drunks, unemployable pot-heads ... and illegal aliens. But families have put children through college, picking brush. There are those in remote, economically depressed (but wonderfully wild!) parts of the Olympic Peninsula who at least partly and sometimes wholly buy property and sustain themselves, on the profits of independent gathering in the woods. It is not prevalent to be that successful & productive at it, but it is possible and there are good examples.

Pickers must know a great deal about a large number of 'patches' of terrain, to keep themselves active. There is often an element of informal proprietorship of the patches that are used ... and groomed, cared for, and even kept secret. For anyone who is at all serious about the work, who is glad to have what is often a part-time & seasonal source of income - there is very much a matter of reputation involved, and it is foolish to jeopardize it.

Buyers are often on quota. Seasons often start slow, and taper off slow. Only a few pickers can be employed, under such circumstance. So the buyers will contact favored pickers, when demand is light. Doing anything stupid, like picking without permits, going into other folk's patches, or (the Mother of All Stupidity) doing anything illegal in the Olympic National Park - will lose one professional status, fast.

Established pickers very rarely go lunatic enough to strip product from the Park. A few might be so inclined ... if they thought they could get away with it, but that is essentially impossible. Usually, the hit 'n run Park rip-offs such as Jeremy mentions in this post, are the work of managed gangs of illegal aliens. The way it works on the Peninsula, a locally savvy & experienced Mexican brings in a group of naive compatriots who are extremely dependent on the boss. They know no English, don't know where they are, how go anywhere or do anything. They are deer in the headlights.

These gangs are known to engage in a variety of unethical and illegal activities, within the picking industry, and other menial forestry-related venues. They are the primary source of the occasional illegal moss-theft or fern-stripping in the Park. The word stupid really applies to these violations, because it is impossible to conceal the activity, and it attracts the determined attention of a variety of officials & individuals ... including the buyers, who very much resent finding themselves on the phone with Park Headquarters, or with a Ranger law enforcement rig parked in front of their business.

Picking in its many forms has the potential to be rehabilitated and made an attractive component of rural lifestyles. There are government agency initiatives aimed at this goal, for some years now. If your love of the hinterlands leads you to move from a developed area to a remote region, you will most likely have neighbors who participate in the business, and the opportunity to practice it yourself will arise. If so, I recommend trying your hand - and heart - at this very engaging enterprise.

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