BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- The U.S. Forest Service has bought 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 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.
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. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hopes to use them on weather missions.
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.
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 on the ground, 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 and that manned aircraft flyovers were adequate.
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 marijuana plants have been removed since 2000. Rey said forests in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains have seen the most activity.