CHEQUAMEGON-NICOLET NATIONAL FOREST, Wis. – A suspected band of marijuana farmers accused of transforming part of a national forest in northeastern Wisconsin into their own private pot plantations left behind irrigation pits, clear-cutting of trees and bags of fertilizer.
While federal prosecutors push their cases against the ring, U.S. Forest Service officials prepare to clean up the mess. And as workers poke through the debris in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, it's getting a little personal.
"When it happens on the plot of land you're responsible for, you probably take a little more ownership," Jeff Seefeldt, the ranger in charge of the Chequamegon-Nicolet's 350,000-acre Lakewood-Laona District, said Friday as he examined the damage at a grow site. "That someone would come in here and just take advantage of the public's land ... I was mad."
Federal, state and local authorities broke up the crew two weeks ago. A dozen men face federal charges.
Investigators aren't saying it officially, but the operation matches the style of Mexican drug cartels, which have turned to growing marijuana on private and public lands in the United States in recent years, eliminating the risk of smuggling the drug across the border.
Authorities have raided 12 grow sites they believe may be connected to the ring, including 10 in the Lakewood-Laona District, which is the Chequamegon-Nicolet's southeastern tip about 60 miles northwest of Green Bay, and one this week in Marinette County. They haven't released a firm count of the plants seized, but Oconto County sheriff's officials estimate as many as 50,000 have been confiscated.
Forest Service workers referred questions about the plants to federal prosecutors, who did not immediately return phone and e-mail messages Friday.
Court documents show that authorities learned of the grows in May after a citizen reported watching two Hispanic men preparing a site in Oconto County.
Seefeldt said a bear hunter scouting the forest found the grows. He said the growers went deep into the forest, digging water pits, clear-cutting trees to let in sunlight for their plants, dumping fertilizer in piles and leaving all sorts of trash.
The ranger on Friday led a group to a grow site concealed by dense foliage and trees about three miles northwest of Mountain, a town about 50 miles northwest of Green Bay. The only way in was an ankle-twisting hike along a long-abandoned, overgrown logging road.
Sawed-off and broken stumps covered the three-quarter-acre clearing and scores of dead trees lined the perimeter. Shallow craters, some marked with orange spray paint, covered the ground.
Four sinkholes the size of kiddie pools sat in the tree line, full of black water. The holes served as makeshift irrigation reservoirs, Forest Service officials said.
Near one of the pits was a waist-high structure built from crisscrossed tree limbs. Strewn around the shelter were pots and pans, bags of fertilizer and other litter.
"We've had (marijuana grows) out here before," Seefeldt said, "(but) nothing of this magnitude."
He said the other nine sites in the forest look similar. The growers dumped fertilizer in gallon-size piles in some sites, creating concerns the fertilizer could kill vegetation.
Workers will clean up the fertilizer, pick up the trash and get chemical tests on the water in the irrigation pits. Seefeldt said nature will take care of the rest.
"In two years, you won't know this is a grow site," he said. "In a couple of years we'll have a new micro-habitat."