A crackdown has pushed growers off the 700,000 acre Daniel Boone National Forest and onto even more rugged terrain where they're just as unwelcome, said Ed Shemelya, head of marijuana eradication in the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
Shemelya said teams of forest rangers, state police, federal agents and military troops who scoured the Daniel Boone this year found only 17,000 plants, a tiny crop compared to the 250,000 plants a year that were eradicated from the forest a decade ago before they began an initiative dubbed "Up In Smoke."
National forests in other parts of the country haven't been so successful. Of the 10 million plants confiscated nationwide this year, half were found in national forests, primarily in California.
"It was common knowledge that you just didn't venture onto the Boone between May and October," Shemelya said. "It's much safer now."
That's not the case on the private land - much of it owned by logging and mining companies - where authorities confiscated nearly $2 billion worth of marijuana this year. Shemelya said eradication teams cut and burned nearly 1 million plants, each with a street value at maturity of about $2,000.
In September, helicopter spotters in Tennessee found more than 150,000 marijuana plants growing on a mountainside near the Kentucky border. That find pushed Tennessee's marijuana plant eradication total to 447,000, the largest take of any Appalachian state this year. Officers found an additional 307,000 plants in the mountains of eastern Kentucky and 230,000 in West Virginia.
Shemelya said nearly 45 percent of the plants confiscated in central Appalachia were found in remote areas where loggers had cut trees, creating openings for sunlight to reach the ground.
Magoffin County Sheriff Bob Jordan and his deputies even cut about $500,000 worth of marijuana over the summer from abandoned surface mines in his mountainous jurisdiction in eastern Kentucky.
"That's normally where we get a good 85 percent of our marijuana," Jordan said. "I go after it hard. Always have."
Mining and logging have been a boon for growers because they create openings in the dense hardwood forests that provide both ample sunlight and near perfect hiding places for the clandestine crops.
"The growers are very adept at making it very difficult to locate and to get to to eradicate," Shemelya said. "It is one of the most difficult jobs you will ever do in law enforcement."
The days when police found patches of marijuana growing in backyard gardens are largely gone in Appalachia, he said. With the crackdown on federal land, tougher drug laws that call for forfeiture of homes and property, growers tend to plant their crops on someone else's land.
Helicopter-guided, camo-clad officers must use Humvees and all-terrain vehicles or hike through steep, rugged terrain to get to the high altitude pot patches that have become safety concerns for civilians who spend time on the mountains for work or recreation.
Preston McLain, an organizer of the Harlan County Ridgerunners ATV club in Kentucky, said riders who explore the mountain ranges are constantly warned to stay on marked trails while traveling across abandoned mine lands to avoid possible booby traps and agitated growers.
"If you get off on an unmarked trail, there's no telling what they can run into," he said.
Dick Brantigan, a private forester based in Winchester, said he has happened across two marijuana plantations in logging areas in the past five years. In each case, the marijuana was hidden among thick undergrowth.
"Sometimes," he said, "you'll walk through it without even realizing it."