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A criminal's playground?

Crimes such as smash-and-grab robbery and poaching of resources have increased at state and national parks in recent years. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).
Crimes such as smash-and-grab robbery and poaching of resources have increased at state and national parks in recent years. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).

By Nicholas Grube

Triplicate staff writer

Crime in state and national parks and forests has been increasing over the years, and Del Norte County is not immune.

Vandalism, smash-and-grab robbery and poaching of natural resources are the main problems at many parks. They top the list at Redwood National and State Parks, said Pat Grediagin, the park's chief ranger.

"In general, the trend is that there is more crime in our parks," said Grediagin, who began working with the park service in 1978 and has worked at various national parks throughout the country. "There's crime in all parks."

Smash-and-grab robbery is when someone breaks into a vehicle and steals whatever valuables may be inside. These crimes are almost never solved, Grediagin said.

"Parks make it a little easier (for smash and grab) because the parking lots are secluded, so there is less of a chance for detection," she said.

The same problem occurs in the Six Rivers National Forest and Smith River National Recreation Area.

"We definitely have some crime issues that impact the quality of our resources and the quality of the time our recreationers enjoy," U.S. Forest Service Officer Steve White said, adding that the Smith River NRA has many of the same problems as the parks.

"The sense of remoteness does really play into the people feeling more free (to commit crimes)," White said, "and the shear vastness of the parks and forests prevent thorough policing."

That size also invites another crime – poaching.

"Parks (and other protected lands) are the perfect places to poach," Grediagin said.

Public lands also have rare species on the premises. Combined with few people nearby, parks become the perfect temptation for poachers.

But it isn't only the animals that are in danger of being illegally taken out of the park, especially in Del Norte County.

"We're seeing more redwood poaching than any other natural resources," Grediagin said.

Poachers will cut out 3- to 4-foot sections of downed redwoods and driftwood then sell them to businesses and craftsmen to make shingles.

Many of the people poaching redwoods earn a living from it. Some poachers fetch $12,000 and $13,000 annually from it.

"This is their livelihood, so it's on a scale that is not acceptable," Grediagin said.

Another major crime on protected lands doesn't have to do with taking things out of them but rather putting things in.

"People use public lands – believe it or not – to grow marijuana," Del Norte Sheriff's Sgt. Steve Morris said. "We spend a major portion of our budget from the Forest Service and Drug Enforcement Agency for the purpose of flying over public land and looking for marijuana gardens."

While not a new criminal activity, it is becoming more sophisticated and organized with the influence of drug cartels, Morris said.

Growers will use camouflage netting and move or bend trees to allow more light to reach the marijuana gardens, White said. Many of these operations will plant four or five gardens, expecting to have a couple of them destroyed by law enforcement – their version of collateral damage.

Two local gardens local law enforcement helped bust last year netted about 2,500 marijuana plants and had very elaborate watering systems using miles of black PVC pipe.

"The national forest is probably the prime venue for marijuana cultivation," White said.

Stopping the growers is difficult because there is so much land to patrol with limited personnel, law enforcement officers said.

"Resource law enforcement is spread pretty thin," White said.

While the seclusion and vastness of the parks, recreation areas and forests is appealing to vacationers, it also is the perfect accomplice for criminals, many times leaving a trail of faceless perpetrators.

"We're surrounded by this magnificent resource," White said, "and for people to behave badly around it is horrible."

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