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Meth Wars in Deer Country

As its cost in dollars and lives mounts, the fight against methamphetamine now invloves sportsmen to a degree no one predicted a handful of years ago. Across the rural countryside, meth labs have invaded the lands where we fish and hunt.
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One December evening in 2004,
Wildlife Officer Amy Snyder heard shots
after legal shooting hours in a popular duck-hunting area in Madison County, Tenn. She put on hip boots and set out into the marsh. But when she arrived at the blind where she thought the shooting had occurred, she found it unoccupied.



Then Officer Snyder noticed a chemical odor in the air. She shined her light around and in the grass saw a large glass mason jar filled with what looked like corn hominy. She kicked over the jar, saw rubber hoses coming out of the top and panicked.



"It was a meth lab, actively cooking," Snyder recalls. "What I'd done was extremely dangerous. The stuff could have exploded, not to mention what might have happened if I'd surprised the cookers at work."



Snyder had reason to be unnerved. The February before in Greene County, Ind., Conservation Officer Mike Gregg got a report of suspicious activity deep inside the Hillenbrand Fish and Wildlife Area. Gregg went in alone to investigate on a cold winter day and caught the unmistakable acrid tang of anhydrous ammonia, a liquid fertilizer and key component in the manufacture of methamphetamine. He got closer and, to his surprise, noticed a man trying to hide beneath the root ball of a fallen tree.



"He took off and I chased him through the snow," Gregg says. "When I caught up to him, he pulled a 9mm pistol on me. I had to shoot him in the leg to subdue him. He was typical of the methers we see: paranoid, armed and violent."



The prior March, Alabama conservation officer Jimmy Hutto learned just how paranoid, armed and violent meth cookers can be. While arresting a man for fishing without a license, he found meth and soon was involved in serving a search warrant on the suspected cooker. But the man's property was wired to detect intruders. And when Hutto broke down the door to the lab, the cooker was waiting and shot the conservation officer in the abdomen. Hutto died two weeks later.



A Rural Scourge

These incidents are not isolated. Law enforcement and conservation officials we contacted across the country describe a wave of methamphetamine manufacturing activity that has crashed across the rural countryside in the last five years, causing a dramatic change in the way game wardens operate and in the way hunters, anglers and other recreationists should conduct themselves afield.



"The landscape is changing," says Keith Aller, deputy director of law enforcement for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "Twenty years ago meth was an outlaw biker thing, an urban thing. But in the past five years we've seen cookers take their labs to the forests and rural areas to avoid detection and to dump the toxic by-products of their work. We've also seen meth addicts exploiting public lands to pay for their habits. I don't want to sound alarmist, but people need to understand what we're up against these days and what they might encounter when they head outdoors."



[pagebreak]
Meth's History

Methamphetamine was first synthesized in Japan in 1919 and was widely prescribed to Allied and Axis combatants to keep them awake during protracted World War II battles. Marketed as Benzedrine in the 1950s, it was the drug of choice for people who wanted to lose weight. A decade later, outlaw biker gangs in the United States learned the so-called "Birch" or "Nazi method" of manufacturing the drugs from over-the-counter cold medicines, and created the market for speed.



Congress made the drug illegal without a prescription in 1970, but by the early 1980s new recipes had made meth easier to cook and more potent, offering the user a 6- to 24-hour high that also damaged the brain.



This super-meth took off in Hawaii and Southern California first, manufactured by Mexican drug cartels. But soon the drug was being manufactured by mom-and-pop cookers, and within 20 years it spread eastward thugh the Rocky Mountains, into the Midwest and onto the East Coast. An urban phenomenon at first, it turned rural as the rank odors associated with its production caused cookers to set up in less
populated areas to avoid detection. That practice has placed some meth labs in the same woods and waterways as hunters, anglers and other outdoorsmen.



Consider that in 2003 the greatest number of reported meth lab seizures on Department of Interior lands occurred on those managed by the Fish & Wildlife Service (38 laboratories), followed by the Bureau of Land Management (31
laboratories), National Park Service (8 laboratories) and Bureau of Indian Affairs (6 laboratories). That same year, the National Forest Service discovered 56 working labs on its land.


Hunters and Meth

But those numbers are believed to be only a fraction of the activity on federal land, not to mention state and private property. And anecdotal evidence of meth invading the outdoors is easy to come by.



In November 2004, for example, deer hunters on state land near Reelsville, Ind., came upon a duffel bag containing an actively cooking meth lab. They wisely backed away from the potentially explosive situation and notified the local police, who quickly dismantled and removed it.



Twelve months earlier in Ashley County, Ark., deer hunters tipped sheriff's investigators to the fact that methamphetamine manufacturers had taken over remote deer blinds and were using them as labs. Narcotics detectives ended up finding four
cooking operations set up in Ashley County deer blinds.
In Wright County, Minn., four years before, cookers decided to use ice-
fishing shanties to manufacture meth on Waverly Lake. Game wardens notified Sheriff's Sergeant Todd Hoffman of the activity. When Hoffman arrived to investigate, he noticed a solvent smell seeping from one of the shacks.[pagebreak]



Some of the more dangerous ingredients found in meth labs include lithium battery acid, charcoal lighter fluid and paint thinner. But the most common component-other than cold and allergy medicines that contain the drug pseudoephedrine-is anhydrous ammonia. Cookers sometimes steal this fertilizer from storage tanks on rural farms, ranches and supply stores.



Needing more evidence to justify a search, Hoffman sifted through a nearby trash pile. When he picked up a thermos, anhydrous ammonia gas erupted from the vessel.



"My face began to burn, and for five or ten seconds I couldn't breathe," Hoffman told the Minneapolis City Pages newspaper. "I thought my face was dissolving."



Hoffman was lucky not to have been seriously injured: When anhydrous ammonia contacts skin, it forms ammonium hydroxide, a highly caustic liquid that burns. Exposure to low levels of some meth ingredients like anhydrous ammonia can cause flu-like symptoms. Higher levels of exposure can cause lung and eye damage, chemical burns and even death.



Idaho Fish and Game officer Clint Rand was involved in
a meth-related theft in 2000. Rand pulled over to help a
disabled vehicle only to be shot at four times by the occupants, who had recently stolen anhydrous ammonia from a fertilizer supply store in Farmington, Wash., at gunpoint.



"Rand was very lucky not to have been hit," says Idaho Fish and Game law enforcement bureau chief Jon Heggen. "But they blew out his windshield. It affected him and his family greatly. He recently decided to retire. That said, we're not experiencing the level of activity seen in other parts of the country. We've found labs in abandoned mines and dumps in the forest, but it's not widespread. However, it only takes one to get your attention. Meth goes beyond the bad guys trying to harm you. The stuff they leave behind in those dumps can kill you."




Toxic Waste Dumps

Indeed, as any law enforcement or conservation officer familiar with meth will tell you, one of the truly insidious aspects of the drug is that the waste associated with its manufacture is as dangerous as the drug, the labs or the users.



According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, every pound of meth creates 5 to 7 pounds of toxic waste. Of the 32 chemicals required to make meth by the Nazi method, for example, a third of them are so poisonous that cleanup workers have to wear biohazard suits and respirators.



The chemical residues of meth manufacture can include lye, phosphorous, hydrochloric acid and iodine. Dump sites can include contaminated coffee filters stained red from the dye in cold medicines, mason jars or Pyrex baking dishes, rubber and plastic hosing, plastic bottles, salt, industrial solvent tanks, discarded methanol or alcohol bottles, white gas containers and propane tanks with the brass fittings stained blue or green from contact with anhydrous ammonia.



According to congressional testimony, it can take up to eight hours and $5,000 to $20,000 to clean up a meth lab. Depending on its size, the manpower and money required to clean up a meth dump site are less. But when the lab or the dump is outdoors, there are hidden costs, such as contamination of groundwater and the potential poisoning of game, hunting dogs or humans-all things that law enforcement officers who patrol the great outdoors are forced to keep in mind these days.


[pagebreak]

Law Enforcement's New Burden

"Before 2000, we'd be hard-pressed to find a meth dump. Now it's not uncommon to find two or three a week," says Patrol Captain Dennis Whitehead, who oversees law enforcement in Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest. "Drug crimes have come to the forest in a big way. We're not just squirrel cops anymore. Sometimes forty percent of our job is associated with drugs. We've had cookers use campsites. We've had them drive roads with the stuff cooking in their cars. We've even had a ring of poachers who were shooting deer and trading the meat for meth. In the last five years, being a forest ranger has changed one hundred and eighty degrees, and it's all due to that drug."



Indiana conservation officer Gregg agrees: "Meth has changed my job. It's gotten to the point where as a conservation officer these days you're better off going into a
situation thinking you may be dealing with meth rather than a game violation."



The state-by-state statistics back up Gregg's grim assessment. The Drug Enforcement Administration reports that in 1999 in Indiana, there were 151 methamphetamine incidents where law enforcement officials, including conservation officers, had to deal with labs, dump sites or disposal of cooking chemicals or equipment.



The following year the incidents in Indiana more than doubled to 353. By 2004, the latest year for which numbers are available, the state reported 1,074 cases in, one of the truly insidious aspects of the drug is that the waste associated with its manufacture is as dangerous as the drug, the labs or the users.



According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, every pound of meth creates 5 to 7 pounds of toxic waste. Of the 32 chemicals required to make meth by the Nazi method, for example, a third of them are so poisonous that cleanup workers have to wear biohazard suits and respirators.



The chemical residues of meth manufacture can include lye, phosphorous, hydrochloric acid and iodine. Dump sites can include contaminated coffee filters stained red from the dye in cold medicines, mason jars or Pyrex baking dishes, rubber and plastic hosing, plastic bottles, salt, industrial solvent tanks, discarded methanol or alcohol bottles, white gas containers and propane tanks with the brass fittings stained blue or green from contact with anhydrous ammonia.



According to congressional testimony, it can take up to eight hours and $5,000 to $20,000 to clean up a meth lab. Depending on its size, the manpower and money required to clean up a meth dump site are less. But when the lab or the dump is outdoors, there are hidden costs, such as contamination of groundwater and the potential poisoning of game, hunting dogs or humans-all things that law enforcement officers who patrol the great outdoors are forced to keep in mind these days.


[pagebreak]

Law Enforcement's New Burden

"Before 2000, we'd be hard-pressed to find a meth dump. Now it's not uncommon to find two or three a week," says Patrol Captain Dennis Whitehead, who oversees law enforcement in Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest. "Drug crimes have come to the forest in a big way. We're not just squirrel cops anymore. Sometimes forty percent of our job is associated with drugs. We've had cookers use campsites. We've had them drive roads with the stuff cooking in their cars. We've even had a ring of poachers who were shooting deer and trading the meat for meth. In the last five years, being a forest ranger has changed one hundred and eighty degrees, and it's all due to that drug."



Indiana conservation officer Gregg agrees: "Meth has changed my job. It's gotten to the point where as a conservation officer these days you're better off going into a
situation thinking you may be dealing with meth rather than a game violation."



The state-by-state statistics back up Gregg's grim assessment. The Drug Enforcement Administration reports that in 1999 in Indiana, there were 151 methamphetamine incidents where law enforcement officials, including conservation officers, had to deal with labs, dump sites or disposal of cooking chemicals or equipment.



The following year the incidents in Indiana more than doubled to 353. By 2004, the latest year for which numbers are available, the state reported 1,074 cases in

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