Mountain pot gardens removed

— Madera County Sheriff's OfficeJune 26, 2013 

Some of nearly 6,000 pounds of waste left by growers of an illegal marijuana garden near North Fork, eradicated by the Madera County Narcotic Enforcement Team.

MADERA COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE/SPECIAL TO SIERRA STAR — Madera County Sheriff's Office/Special to Sierra Star

Task Force Agents spent all day Thursday, June 20 in the Sierra National Forest, ripping out more than 20,000 marijuana plants and hauling out nearly 6,000 pounds of waste and five miles of drip line. The marijuana eradication operation also focused on land reclamation and took 12 hours.

Agents with the Madera County Narcotic Enforcement Team (MADNET), U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Fish & Wildlife, as well as sworn personnel assigned to Madera County Regional SWAT Team, eradicated gardens near Peckinpah Mountain and Central Camp. Officials eradicated 17,103 plants at Central Camp and 3,018 plants at the Peckinpah camp.

On June 24, three more gardens totalling 22,000 plants, along with 1,000 pounds of waste, were found about seven miles north-east of North Fork near popular fishing streams, Saginaw Creek and Upper Fish Creek.

It was estimated that if all 42,000 plants eradicated at the five locations were able to mature, the value would be $105 million. No arrests were made.

Sheriff John Anderson said Monday's operation uncovered chemicals near streams "that feed into the very water system you and I drink. These clandestine grows are operating in some of the most popular destination points for hikers, anglers and campers. Their greed and wanton disregard for our forests dosen't just impact the wildlife ... their presence poses a very real danger to the public as well."

In addition to the marijuana plants found June 20, trash and drip line, 1,000 pounds of fertilizer and close to 100 pounds of poison were also removed.

In an effort to include reclamation as part of these operations, eradication missions are now taking almost twice as long. However, agents say they have no choice. If they leave behind well stocked campsites and the elaborate irrigation systems, growers will return and replant before the season ends.

It is the agents hope that, by dismantling the entire marijuana operation now, they not only minimize the environmental devastation but will keep the growers at bay.

Agents have tied the trio of gardens to a drug trafficking organization based in Mexico.

California Department of Fish & Wildlife agents are trained in handling hazardous materials. Once fish and wildlife has separated toxins from the rest of collected debris, they are handed over to a licensed contractor, who then delivers the hazardous material to a proper hazardous waste facility.

The Madera County Regional SWAT Team serves agents as added protection due to the fact that the growers are typically armed. It is often the role of the SWAT Team to enter these gardens first. Once the gardens are deemed safe, they too participate in eradicating operation.

Much of what is removed doesn't go to waste, according to Kevin Mayer, a special agent for the U.S. Forest Service.

"What we can salvage from these grow sites, we donate to local volunteer organizations across the state," Mayer said.

For example, unused coiled drip line will be donated to groups like Tree Fresno and the High Sierra Volunteers Trail Crew. FDA approved fertilizer in bags that have not been opened, stoves, propane tanks and starter trays found littering the sites are also donated to charities. Plastic that is no longer usable is recycled.

Canned goods, if deemed acceptable, are donated to shelters.

MADNET operates a 24/7 hotline. Anyone with information about illicit drug activity in Madera County is urged to call (559) 675-7776.

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