73,000 marijuana plants uprooted

A battle has begun in Madera County against what some experts call environmental terrorists, as helicopter operations last week led to the seizure of more than 73,000 marijuana plants grown to profit Mexican cartels, with extensive damage already caused to forests, streams, and wildlife.

It was the largest seizure in the more than 20-year history of marijuana operations in Madera County.

“This is a fight against the destruction of our forests,” Sheriff’s Cmdr. Tyson Pogue said. “It’s not like they’re out there growing potatoes. They dig huge trash pits, they bring in fertilizers and pesticides that are dangerous and often illegal and it gets into the streams, they poach animals ... it’s very, very destructive.”

Dubbed “short haul” operations that ran June 27-June 29, about 30 personnel from county, state, and federal agencies joined forces to eliminate several illegal grows near North Fork including Corrine Lake, Wyle Ranch, Saginaw Creek, Indian Creek, Cougar Drive, and Source Point.

A lead narcotics investigator for the sheriff’s office, who asked to remain anonymous, said the seized plants could have earned more than $85 million for cartels.

“These are major drug trafficking organizations that are using this money to fund much bigger, more nefarious operations,” Pogue said. “There’s a huge difference between these massive grows and when your next-door neighbor is growing a few plants in his backyard.”

At the start of each day, personnel from the U.S. Forest Service, Sheriff’s Office, National Guard, Bureau of Land Management, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife first established a helicopter landing zone. The zones were set up near Corrine Lake or Clearwater Fire Station.

From there, crews flew out to inspect grow sites - often located through tips by the public, Pogue said - and determined any safety risks for personnel, as well as whether they could enter each area through hiking or by vehicle. With those options unavailable, a helicopter drop was the next step.

In teams of two, personnel were airlifted underneath the helicopter on a line, equipped in full gear including camouflage suits, helmets, goggles, and weaponry, to be dropped into a site.

More than 45,300 plants were seized near Corrine Lake in a 12-hour operation Monday, followed by more than 21,000 around Wyle Ranch Tuesday, and 7,000 near Source Point and Saginaw Creek Wednesday.

Pogue said no arrests were made, though one alleged grower was seen running on the first day.

“When we’re walking to the grow or flying over it, they see us coming,” Pogue said. “They’ve lived there for months, so they know the sounds and they are ready to run. Plus they know the area so they know exactly how to escape, and trying to chase them down can lead to problems for the safety of deputies and other personnel.”

On at least one grow, crews came upon carbofuran, a dangerous smuggled pesticide fully banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2009.

Kevin Mayer, a forest service special agent of more than 20 years, said he’s often seen in person how that toxic chemical, as well as many others used in cartel grows, kills off surrounding wildlife and trees.

“A spoonful of that will kill a tiger,” Mayer said. “It’s extremely deadly, it kills everything ... we’ve had grows near areas like Douglas Station Road where we see coyotes, birds, other animals all lying dead around the plants.”

When animals such as mice or squirrels chew on the plants for hydration, Mayer said, they become sick and are easy targets for predators, leading to the spread of sickness, birth defects, or even death higher up the food chain.

He added bears or other animals that are drawn to the grows, usually due to trash, are often poached as well.

“We’ve had mountain lions, bears, all sorts of animals killed,” Mayer said. “I mean a bear will come in at night to rummage through the trash, and these guys will set out traps, shoot it, whatever else. They’re usually always armed.”

On top of that, Pogue said the pesticides and various garbage often leaches into groundwater or streams that are also being illegally siphoned to grow the plants.

The seized marijuana was buried at an undisclosed location, Pogue said.

Whether marijuana becomes legal for recreational use is not important, Mayer added.

“Even if marijuana was legal, you’re not allowed to grow it out on public land,” Mayer said. “We wouldn’t let people grow grapes, tomatoes, anything like that here either. They’re literally destroying the land for profit, so we are focused on ecological and environmental restoration. We get them out of here so the area isn’t killed off.”

Pogue said anyone who encounters a grow, including if they see drip line, fertilizer, or other items not common to a forest, they should immediately leave the area and call the sheriff’s office at (559) 675-7770 to give a description.

So far this year, Pogue said marijuana operations in Madera County have led to the seizure of 99,927 total plants, 376 pounds of it processed for use, nearly $34,000 in cash, 26 guns, and 28 arrests.