Believe it or not, early fall deer hunting seasons are just weeks away in many regions of the country. It’s probably a good time to remind public land hunters of the growing threat to their safety posed by the illegal and clandestine marijuana-growing operations manned by some pretty ruthless characters in the remote places where we often pursue big game.Pot

Last week, during a multi-agency pot-eradication effort in California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) said that illegal cultivation on public land is at historically high levels. Drug czar John P. Walters said the operations are run by Mexican drug cartels and guarded by heavily armed members of U.S.-based street gangs and illegal Mexican nationals.

“Our national treasures are now ground zero for international and domestic drug cultivation and trafficking,” Walters said, as reported by the Washington Times.

It’s an unfortunate sign of the times, but hunters and other folks heading to the backcountry need to take extra precautions.

Simply put, there are some real bad guys in the woods these days.

Last year, a California deer hunter was fired upon when he stumbled on a marijuana garden in a remote part of the Mendocino National Forest. The unnamed hunter told authorities that four male subjects pointed rifles in his direction and began shooting.

In 2006, law enforcement officials eradicated 340,000 illegally grown marijuana plants from the Mendocino National Forest–compared to 124,792 in 2005.

During last week’s California operation, ONDCP spokesman Stephen E. Schatz said violent Mexican drug cartels construct, operate and manage 80 to 90 percent of all U.S.-based marijuana plantations—most of which are in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington and West Virginia.

Schatz said those who tend and guard the gardens do so with high-tech equipment and state-of-the-art weapons.

In 2006, authorities in California seized 2.8 million outdoor marijuana plants, including 1.7 million from federal and state land.

The pot-growing operations also pose a threat to the ecosystem, as trees are often cut, watering operations are installed and garbage and trash are left behind.

The Times story noted that a National Parks Service study concluded that for every acre of forest planted with marijuana, a total of 10 acres are damaged. NPS estimates it costs $11,000 per acre to repair and restore national forest land once it is contaminated with toxic chemicals and fertilizers, human waste, and irrigation tubing and pipes associated with marijuana cultivation.

Have any of you Newshounders ever stumbled upon a pot-growing or drug-making operation while hunting? If so, feel free to share your tale with us.