BILLINGS, Mont. — The U.S. Forest Service has purchased a pair of flying drones to track down marijuana growers operating in remote California woodlands.
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the pilotless, camera-equipped aircraft will allow agency law enforcement officers to pinpoint marijuana fields and size up potential dangers before agents attempt arrests.
Rey said there are increasing numbers of marijuana growers financed by Mexican drug cartels using California's forests to stage their operations.
"We're dealing with organized efforts now — not just a couple of hippies living off the land and making some cash on the side," Rey said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. "These (drones) are small, hard to see from the ground and they're quiet so they won't tip off (growers)."
The purchase of the two SkySeer drones, for a combined $100,000, reflects rising interest in remote-controlled aircraft among law enforcement, science and other government agencies.
Once used almost exclusively by defense and intelligence agencies, drones are now routinely flown by the Department of Homeland Security to patrol the Mexican border. In January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched a $3 million test program using the aircraft on weather missions, such as hurricane flyovers.
The two Forest Service drones differ from those used by other agencies. They're lighter — less than five pounds apiece — and can fly for only about an hour.
They are being kept at the Forest Service's aviation branch in Montana until they are put into use. Rey said the agency wants to have the machines flying over California by late summer or early fall.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had been prodding the Forest Service to step up its efforts against marijuana growers in the state's forests. But Feinstein, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that controls the agency's budget, stopped short of supporting the new drones.
"I've provided additional funds to the Forest Service to fight this dangerous epidemic," Feinstein said in a statement. "But I intend to take a hard look at whether it's appropriate for the Forest Service to buy and operate unmanned aerial vehicles for this purpose."
Sold by Octatron of La Verne, Calif., the battery-powered SkySeer can fly at under 30 miles per hour, has a two-mile range and is operated by a two-man crew, according to the company. One of the drones bought by the Forest Service was equipped with a thermal camera for nighttime flights.
The purchase was disclosed in documents obtained through a freedom of information request filed by the group Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility.
The group's executive director, Jeff Ruch, questioned whether the Forest Service needed the machines. He said the purchase reflected a "boys with toys" mentality within the agency.
"I'm not sure what a drone gets you that a (manned aircraft) flyover doesn't," Ruch said Thursday.
Rey dismissed the criticism.
"The fact is, our guys work in remote locations and knowing more about what they're going to confront will make them a lot safer," he said.
More than 2.3 million marijuana plants were eradicated from Forest Service lands nationwide last year, according to figures provided by the office of Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell.
In California's 18 national forests, an estimated 6 million plants have been removed since 2000. Rey said forests in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains have seen the most activity.
Octatron spokesman Randy Earp said the Forest Service had no other drones on order. He said the agency had bought the drones as "a developmental project — where they can see what we can do and how it can be an asset."
"I could only hope in the future that it would go large-scale," Earp said.
Earp acknowledged some drone sales have stalled while the Federal Aviation Administration adopts long-term regulations for their use.
FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said agencies wanting to use drones more quickly can apply for interim authorization while the rules are being crafted. Approval can take months, she said.
Rey said the Forest Service is training two employees to operate the SkySeer. He said he expected FAA flying approval to come with completion of the training.