Wildlife Conservation Officer Dave Allen was conducting a routine patrol on State Game Lands 187 in Dennison Township on Sept. 6 when he noticed a new trail that led to something that was anything but normal.
Allen discovered an opening in the forest containing 170 mature marijuana plants with a street value of more than $200,000, according to authorities.
The discovery came after Allen saw a vehicle in the area allegedly driven by Thomas Dalton, 47, of Airy Street in Wilkes-Barre. A search of Dalton’s vehicle yielded a 125-gallon plastic water tank, an electric pump and other equipment consistent with the cultivation of marijuana, authorities said.
Dalton surrendered Wednesday and was charged with one felony count each of manufacture of a controlled substance and possession with the intent to deliver a controlled substance, plus one misdemeanor count of possession of a controlled substance.
Dalton also is charged with violating the Game and Wildlife Code by unlawfully traveling by motorized vehicle on state game lands, possessing a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia, using game lands for commercial purpose and other violations.
Dalton allegedly told Allen and agents with the state Attorney General’s Office he planted the marijuana at the game lands location earlier this year.
The charges were filed by both the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the state Office of Attorney General at the office of District Judge Gerald Feissner in Freeland on Wednesday and forwarded to Luzerne County Court. Dalton was released on his own recognizance.
Allen said SGL 187 is heavily used and he was surprised the marijuana plants were not discovered sooner. It was the largest marijuana cultivation that he has encountered on game lands in the area, he said.
“This individual cleared out an area of forest about a quarter of an acre in size and established a road and parking area at the site,” Allen said. “The plants were several inches thick at the base of the stalk and stood up to 16 feet high.”
Bill Williams, Game Commission spokesman for the Northeast Region, said officers occasionally come across areas where a handful of marijuana plants were planted, but nothing on this scale.
“This incident is the largest I’ve heard about in the state occurring on game lands,” Williams said.
The plants were removed and burned, and the site will be allowed to revert back to forest, Williams added.
With archery season opening this Saturday, followed by other fall hunting seasons, Williams advised hunters to call the Game Commission if they encounter any drug-related activity on game lands.
“It’s rare, but we’ve had officers come across small areas of plants and even evidence of meth production in Bradford County,” Williams said. “If you do come across such a site, call us. Don’t investigate it because these areas can be booby-trapped or monitored by cameras.”
The incident also means that wildlife conservation officers will be on high alert for any suspicious activity occurring on game lands.
“Our conservation officers are extremely active in patrolling state game lands to detect criminal activity and any abuse of our natural resources,” said Daniel Figured, the commission’s Northeast regional director. “The agency intends to prosecute individuals who commit these types of crimes to the fullest extent of the law.”
Wildlife conservation officers from the Game Commission’s Northeast Region were assisted in the investigation by narcotics agents from the state Office of Attorney General, the Pennsylvania State Police and members of the Luzerne County Drug Task Force.