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Adam Foxman. [email protected]
Ventura County Star (California)

To an untrained eye, the chaparral-covered hillsides under the circling helicopter looked like any others, but Ventura County sheriff's Cmdr. Gary Pentis saw a few spots of emerald green - telltale markers of marijuana farms.
Authorities had spotted the pot farms in Los Padres National Forest about eight miles from Rose Valley north of Ojai about three weeks ago. On Wednesday, they seized 7,514 marijuana plants with an estimated street value of more than $15 million, said Sgt. Mike Horne of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department's Narcotics Unit.
Pentis led the operation, which included more than 70 personnel from the Sheriff's Department, Ventura County Fire Department, U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Fish and Game, and Drug Enforcement Administration.
The haul Wednesday was on the high end of average. Sheriff's officials expected to find more plants, based on previous surveillance, but it appeared the growers had harvested some before the raid, Horne said.
The raid was the third large marijuana seizure in Ventura County in as many weeks. Authorities found and destroyed more than 14,000 pot plants on July 15 and an additional 7,249 plants on July 24.
The total seized so far is nearly as much as is normally found in the forest in an entire year, authorities said. "It's probably going to be a record year," Pentis said.
Because most marijuana farms are well-hidden, it's hard to know how much might be growing in Los Padres. Finding the farms - "gardens" in police parlance ­­- is often a matter of luck.
"Until we have a couple of years of a demonstrated increase, it might just be a blip on the radar," said John Bridgwater, district ranger for the Ojai region of the Los Padres National Forest.
Forest officials are concerned about the risk the marijuana farms pose to park users and the environment, Bridgwater said.
Sheriff's officials believe the pot cultivation problem is getting worse, partly because of an increase in the influence of Mexican drug cartels.
They also believe drug cartels are behind an increase in violence associated with pot farms this year. No shootings have been reported recently in connection with farms in Ventura County, but police in Northern California this month encountered armed men on a pot farm and shot and killed a suspect.
Authorities used a sheriff's SWAT team in Wednesday's raid. In addition to providing protection for law enforcement colleagues, the team set up a perimeter to try to snare growers flushed out by the raid.
The growers, usually low-level operatives brought in from Mexico, are notoriously hard to catch, because they know all the nooks and crannies of the rugged mountains near the farms, authorities said. Police chased one suspect during Wednesday's raid, but no one was arrested.
What they did find was typical: thousands of 4- to 5-foot-tall pot plants hidden under a chaparral covering, fed by irrigation lines connected to a natural water source nearby. Also typical were the piles of trash, snacks and boxes of homemade beer, swaths of underbrush cut to make room for marijuana, and evidence of pesticide use.
One U.S. Forest Service officer found a can of Mexican rat poison. The growers also left clothes, saws and several hammocks made of irrigation drip line.
Authorities found terraces in the steep, rocky hillside, which indicated the farm had been there for several years, said sheriff's Capt. Derek West.
After law enforcement officers checked for suspects, authorities spent hours chopping down the pot plants, piling them and hauling them out in nets suspended below helicopters. When they had finished, the hillside looked like a lawn hit by a weed whacker.
Then they burned the pot at a staging area in Rose Valley. The plants were stacked in a massive pile and set on fire with drip torches.
Law enforcement agencies have been battling marijuana farms in the Los Padres for many years. Sheriff's and Forest Service officials said continuing eradication efforts are important because of the influence of organized crime, environmental degradation and danger to park visitors.
Sheriff's officials doubt they can completely eliminate the pot cultivation. But if authorities weren't putting pressure on pot farmers, "they would be growing a lot more than what they are," said sheriff's Sgt. Pat MacAuley.
The pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers used by growers filter into local water sources and can affect the entire food chain in a wide area, authorities said.
The diversion of natural water for pot irrigation also can harm the environment, they said.
Growers are often armed, and while the pot farms dismantled Wednesday were in rugged terrain about a mile from the nearest road, others are close enough that park visitors could stumble upon them, authorities said.
Narcotics officers also emphasize the importance of taking the marijuana, which can be much stronger than the type grown 30 years ago, off the streets.
Pentis said he's spoken with many parents whose children have behavioral problems related to pot abuse. "The effects of marijuana addiction on our youth are a lot broader than a lot of people want to admit," he said.

Story From: Ventura County Star
 
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