Agents tackle multiple marijuana gardens near North Fork

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

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 and Central Camp. Officials eradicated 17,103 plants at Central Camp and 3,018 plants at the Peckinpah camp.

In addition to the marijuana plants, trash and drip line, 1,000 pounds of fertilizer and close to 100 pounds of poison were also removed from the back-country.

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.

Agents cannot afford to keep returning to the same location if they are going to tackle the vast number of marijuana gardens growing in the high country.

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.

Through the day, orange bags —bearing the logo, “Don’t Trash California” — grew in numbers and lined trailers brought in to haul the several thousand pounds of debris out.

Agencies involved in Madera County’s 2013 Eradication Mission each play an integral role in the operation.It is MADNET’s role to find these gardens, investigate the growing operations, and track growers.

MADNET is a multi-agency drug enforcement team made up of sworn personnel from all Madera County Law Enforcement agencies. It operates under one commander from California’s Department of Justice Bureau of Investigation. After realizing the drug problem that prevails in Madera County and knowing no one agency can tackle it alone, Madera County Sheriff John Anderson spearheaded this unit. A memo of understanding was created with the State of California during his first term in office.

When it comes time to launch the eradication missions, MADNET relies on the forest service and fish and wildlife, as well as able bodied SWAT personnel.

The U.S. Forest Service not only provides agents to help remove the trash and plants, it also supplies air support. Without it, it would be virtually impossible for MADNET to successfully carry out these operations.

Another big concern is the environmental impact caused by the toxic chemicals growers bring into the back-country. The poisonous materials seep into the soil as well as the streams.

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.

The work is grueling and physically taxing. On Thursday, June 20, agents worked under a smoke filled sky due to the Carstens Fire in Mariposa County. At an elevation of roughly 6,000 feet, this region usually boasts blue skies was enveloped in a thick blanket of smog.

Breathing became difficult at times, so agents could not work as quickly as they otherwise would under different conditions.

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.

“We try to transport as little garbage as possible to the landfills,” Mayer said.

Twenty-two sworn personnel participated in Thursday’s mission.

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