Schoharie County Sheriff Tony Desmond gathered with deputies at the tiny Sharon airport last week, eager to confirm their hunches about where illegal marijuana crops might be growing.
As they work to stem illegal marijuana production, the county’s law enforcement agencies are generally limited to what they can see from roads or otherwise find with tips from the citizenry.
With the help of the National Guard’s Counterdrug Task Force — and a military helicopter — it took only a few hours to pinpoint a patch of the drug growing deep in the woods near the borders of Schoharie, Schenectady and Montgomery counties.
Both Desmond and Sharon town Supervisor Sandra Manko speak highly of the benefits the task force brings, but the future of one of its essential tools, the helicopter, was placed in jeopardy earlier this year and remains in question down the road.
A search for budget cuts led to a proposal to trim funding for the UH-72 chopper program and a suggestion the funding be cut altogether for 2014.
It doesn’t matter if the helicopters already are flying — a cut in the program funding would ground even those already purchased — because U.S. Army funding takes into account specific spending on a program, including fuel and maintenance. So for most of this year, the UH-72 programs were at risk of being lost altogether.
Congress ultimately approved money to continue purchasing these helicopters in 2013, but whether that continues in 2014 is up for discussion in Washington this fall, according to the office of U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook.
For Manko, the National Guard’s help in reducing the drug trade is essential to maintaining a decent reputation in a town that’s trying to bolster its tourism industry and bring in more visitors.
It’s a task that gets more difficult when major cash crops of illegal drugs are found and broadcast in the media, she said. And the fact that harvest time for marijuana comes around the same time as school starts for the year adds to her concern.
“We spend a lot of money to promote [the town], and all it takes is a couple negative stories to take it in a negative direction,” Manko said.
A helicopter crew brought Schoharie County Sheriff’s Deputy Bruce Baker up Wednesday for two hours of searching, and they found two plots of marijuana growing in the woods. The pilot, a National Guard chief warrant officer who asked not to be identified, said he sees several benefits to the work, which is more than just practice flying.
The same team flew 17 hours to Texas last winter to assist in Southwest border-control efforts, ultimately finding three stranded Nicaraguan immigrants who’d been lost without food and water for three days.
It’s easier to spot people, though, with the infrared camera and spotlight fitted to the camera — the light is big enough to illuminate an entire football field.
Typically, marijuana growing in an open field is easy to see.
“It’s very pronounced,” the pilot said of the vivid green hue of the marijuana plant.
But the search gets more complicated during some years, like this one.
“It’s been a very good summer for ragweed,” he said, explaining that the wild weed that makes people sneeze is one of few plants that masks the typically easy-to-see marijuana, which glows green.
“So when the ragweed’s thick, it kind of masks things. And it’s everywhere,” he said.
For the crew, trips to search for marijuana help hone their skills.
Preparing the aircraft, communicating and practice working as a team are all benefits.
And although they’re simply looking for a weed growing in the ground, the pilot said the work is worth it. “In our view, we’re supporting local law enforcement and we’re providing the aid they need,” he said.
It also works to help Guard members establish relationships with local authorities, making communication easier during natural disasters and rescue missions, he said.
The flights continued Thursday and Friday and resulted in seizure of a total of 334 marijuana plants in the towns of Sharon, Wright, Esperance and Schoharie, according to Desmond.
It’s work that couldn’t be done, he said, without the help of the National Guard. “This is very important to use out here in a rural county that’s popular for cultivating marijuana plants,” he added.
“I certainly would not want to see anybody do anything to limit this resource for us and I certainly hope that whoever is in charge will realize that we need this and it is a great help to us.”
The UH-72 helicopters are built for search and rescue missions, not for combat.
Despite their utility, they have been threatened with funding cuts which, depending on congressional action this year, could eliminate future purchases and the use of the existing helicopters.
The Obama administration requested only $91.2 million to purchase 10 helicopters in the 2013 budget proposal, according to Stephanie Valle, a spokeswoman for Rep. Gibson.
That figure represented a drop in funding, but the House of Representatives disagreed and instead appropriated $231 million for the program, enough for 31 helicopters.
“This has been a successful program for the Army, and less expensive than other combat aircraft options,” Valle said.
The future, however, remains in question, she said.
“As far as the way forward, the House and Senate will have to negotiate a final level of funding that would then be signed into law by the president,” Valle said.
MORE THAN MARIJUANA
The New York National Guard’s Counterdrug Task Force is based in Glenville at the Stratton Air National Guard Base, home of the ANG’s 109th Airlift Wing. The agency is funded for 75 full-time personnel, half from the Army National Guard, half from the Air National Guard, according to Eric Durr, spokesman for the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs.
There are similar National Guard missions in the other 49 states.
The task force flew 91 missions for 21 different municipalities in the state in 2012, logging more than 363 hours in flight and drawing in 136 soldiers during the year.
The result: drugs with a street value of nearly $182 million and $13.35 million in drug money were seized. Counting seizure of additional “miscellaneous items,” the program cut $198,142,377 from the drug trade in New York.
The National Guard Counterdrug Task Force makes other equipment available for local law enforcement. Among them are devices that can spot weapons, drugs and explosives inside of objects — including vehicles — in addition to personnel trained in their use.
New York State Counterdrug Coordinator Col. Richard Sloma said the program began 23 years ago during the “War on Drugs,” and has since brought needed tools to areas that can’t afford them.
“The military has a lot of unique capabilities that law enforcement doesn’t have access to,” he said.
There are political discussions at the federal level about the focus on drugs, specifically marijuana. Recently, the federal government announced plans to let states decide on marijuana laws, indicating a pullback from the clash between state and federal government when states allow its use for medical or recreational purposes.
The political and philosophical arguments aren’t part of the discussion for the National Guard, Sloma said — they simply go where they’re asked to and help out.
He said, ultimately, laws on marijuana won’t address the downfalls in communities struggling from the plight of drug addition.
“There’s still going to be issues of preventing drug use, alcohol abuse. Those issues will still be there,” Sloma said.