Project Dates: September 28, 2010-May 17, 2011 Project Leader: Emily Frankel Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 760-780-8039 Address: 57087 Yucca Trail, Yucca Valley, CA 92284
Dates: 11/11/10 – 11/20/10
Field Office / Ranger District: Ridgecrest / Sacatar Trail Wilderness
Report Prepared by: Sara Tamler
Corps Members Present: Leah Edwards, Andrew Godbout, Sara Tamler, Sam Wright
Days 1, 2, and 4: cleaned up illegal marijuana farms of trash, irrigation, structures, and restored general area in 9 Mile Canyon, 5 Mile Canyon, and No-Name Canyon
Day 3: Surveyed abandoned vehicles in 9 Mile Canyon, evaluating ease and method of removal
Days 4-6: Monitored wilderness boundary along Sacatar Trail Wilderness for restoration projects, signage, and suggested restoration
Marijuana Farm Cleanup:
3 farms cleared
3 campsites cleared
7 plots cleared of 950lbs of piping
750lbs of trash bagged
Abandoned Vehicle Survey:
7 miles surveyed
18 vehicles evaluated
Wilderness Boundary Monitoring:
24 miles of boundary monitored
12 signs installed
1 sign removed
3 campsites monitored
1 effectiveness monitoring completed
7 restoration sites proposed
Since training, we of WildCorps IX have been attempting to introduce the exclamation “Wild Core!” into the DRC common vernacular. We like to think of it as one step more hard core than “Hard Core!” as in: “wow, your vertical mulching on that incursion is so exceptionally wild core” or “I came THIS CLOSE to a mountain lion, how wild core is that?!”
I say this because the only way I can think to accurately describe WildCorps IX Hitch #2 is WILD CORE. You try spending the better part of a 10-day hitch trying to keep up with a fully-camouflaged law enforcement officer while he jets down a 3,000ft canyon slope headed toward a recently busted illegal marijuana farm valued at $18 million, and see if you can think of a better term to describe the experience.
You might be wondering: “How is that possibly part of your job, WildCorps IX?” Well, let me assure you that this adventure always kept restoration and conservation and planet saving goodness as its ultimate objective, even when we felt in some small way intertwined in the muddy and convoluted politics of illegal drug trafficking. The canyons running through and around the Sacatar Trail Wilderness (under the jurisdiction of the Ridgecrest BLM office) see regular occurrences of what Sam has coined Clandestine Cannabis Cultivation Camps – in other words, illicit pot farms. From what our LEO escort Terry told us, these farms are predominately cultivated by illegal immigrants coerced or misled into the profession – basically dropped into a remote wilderness setting to hide out for a growing season, at the end of which they’ll harvest their crop, close up shop, and get away with less than .03% of the profit. That is, if they’re not found and busted by law enforcement – if they’re caught alive, they can get 10-15 years of jail time, and that’s if they’re not victim to a fatal shootout.
Our job was to clear the camp and plant plots of these farms after they’d been busted and subsequently abandoned. The plots are pretty elaborate, especially given the resources these growers work with – buried piping that can extend over any kind of terrain for miles from the water source (a creek, spring, or water collection site) to the plants – and the campsites were very efficiently set up, nestled in Joshua Tree clusters or under deep brush, complete with makeshift tables and shelters made out of desert scrub. Really ingenious – my only complaint, coming from the perspective of extended backcountry living myself, was the amount of trash they left to rot. Leah and I spent the better part of our day at two out of the three farms waist deep in trash pits of rotting Ramen, crushed Tapatio bottles, and Spam tins – I couldn’t help but think the growers sure could benefit from a Leave No Trace course. On the same token, seeing the human touches such an illicit and surreal lifestyle was jarring – toothpaste, nail clippers, shoes, a drawing of a flower. And we thought we were roughing it. Talk about wild core.
The three farms we cleaned up had been busted at varying times – the last two were at least two years old, the first had been cleared out only two months prior to our arrival. The older ones showed no sign of plant cultivation sans the piping we were pulling, but the more recently busted farm, abandoned in a hurry, hadn’t quite been picked clean. After finally clearing and filling in the trash pit, Leah and I walked over to help finish up with piping from the last plot to find a sizeable pile of freshly-pulled marijuana stalks. I picked one up just in time for Terry to happily inform me that the fluffy purplish green twig in my hand would be worth $500. WHAT?! Anyway, you can be sure we snapped quite a few pictures with the plants and the LEOs.
While the farms themselves were eye opening in a number of different ways, the work itself was relatively simple and quick – pick up trash, bundle up piping, and stack it all in an accessible place for a helicopter pickup. The real challenge was hiking out to and from the sites. Terry was all about the most direct path, elevation change, loose rocks and dense brush be damned! The three canyons we worked in – 9 Mile, 5 Mile, and No Name canyons (pretty creative, huh?) – were absolutely gorgeous, and absolutely ruthless. Flashbacks to our Wilderness First Responder training ran through my mind more than once as I imagined trying to evacuate someone with a rolled ankle somewhere along the ravine.
Speaking of scaling cliffs, while the LEOs took their biannual shooting certification, we had one day on our own surveying crashed vehicles that had plummeted into the canyon from 9 Mile Canyon Road. THAT was a trip – we hiked for about 7 miles along the canyon, in the bed when we could, and the rocky gulley wall when it was too overgrown. It was quite the scavenger hunt, looking for cars that had been rotting in the canyon for sometimes the past few decades. We were like detectives, finding evidence and evaluating removal procedures. Terry hinted that the driver to one vehicle had never been found, but we found no signs of dead bodies.
Our last few days in the Sacatar Trail Wilderness were spent following the Wilderness Boundary by truck when possible, foot when the boundary left the road – an adventure in itself as we navigated the unmaintained backroads of BLM wilderness using intricate topo maps and GPS devices that were smarter than they were functional. Our task was to monitor the boundary for incursions created by off-road vehicles, restoration projects that had already been completed, and signage designating the area as wilderness.
Pretty wild core, huh? Add to that a snarky and resourceful field mouse who kept finding new ways into our trailer and veggie cooler, and you’ve got yourself some pretty tired WildCorpses. At least the beautiful sunrise over the canyon gave us daily motivation to jump out of our sleeping bags and face whatever crazy task awaited us!