ENTERPRISE, Ore. — National Guard helicopters that spend hundreds of hours in the air during the growing season looking for clandestine marijuana grows could be on the ground more often next year under Obama administration budget proposals under protest by Oregon sheriffs and member of Congress.
Three single-engine Bell OH-58 Kiowa helicopters do the flying and are in high demand among sheriffs in the state’s 36 counties, said Air National Guard Col. Steve Deptula of Salem, who coordinates the flights.
The pilots flew 435 hours last summer, at an average flight time cost of $1,293 per hour.
The program’s 2012 budget of $2.7 million is expected to fall to $926,000 next year, Deptula told The Oregonian.
That could reduce program flight hours to 200 or 250, he said.
Losing two-thirds of the budget won’t kill the program, but “it will not be nearly as robust as it is now,” he said. “We are going to fly as much as we can.”
Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen said the flights have been an important weapon against “armed insurgents” working in clandestine grows in his mountainous jurisdiction, as large as Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and home to about 7,000 people.
“For us to put boots on the ground and check out all of these canyons is ridiculous,” he said.
Baker County Sheriff Mitch Southwick said helicopter observers are responsible for finding most of the marijuana plantations uncovered in his county.
Using less-expensive airplanes is possible, but they travel faster and don’t allow observers to see nearly so much, he said.
“Unfortunately, the budget proposed by the administration would effectively surrender our national forests in Oregon and along the West Coast to these drug traffickers,” U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon said in a letter to Sen. Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The helicopters are known for their scout-reconnaissance roles in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. For the drug investigations, the Guard also provides criminal analysts, technical support and even light armored vehicles, Deptula said.
“Whenever you read a story on a major drug bust, there is a very high probability there was a guardsman involved in that case,” he said.