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August 25, 2010
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Pot gardens: State, federal authorities focus on public land grow sites

Federal and state authorities are "swamped" with cases after targeting pot growers on public lands, said a spokeswoman from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"It's harvest season," said spokeswoman Lauren Horwood. "We have raids going on almost every day."

This week alone, more than 20,000 marijuana plants were eradicated at three grow sites on U.S. Forest Service land near Graniteville, north of Nevada City. Although the sites were being tended, no workers were apprehended during the raids.

But federal authorities have been focusing on large-scale marijuana gardens farmed by Mexican nationals, in particular in Fresno County, and have arrested dozens of suspects in the last few months.

"Unfortunately, the cultivation of marijuana in California has proliferated exponentially in the Sierra foothills and mountains," said U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner in a prepared statement. "The dangers and hazards associated with the cultivation of marijuana on public lands cannot be overstated. Marijuana growers are clearing large expanses of land, diverting natural water sources to grow and harvest super-sized marijuana crops, and polluting forests and streams with harmful and often illegal pesticides and fertilizers.

"In addition, to protect their lucrative crop, the growers often arm themselves with dangerous weapons and pose a danger not only to law enforcement but to recreational hikers, campers, and other persons who use federal and state lands," Wagner said in the statement.

In the most recent case, a Reedley man was sentenced Monday to six and a half years in prison for providing food, supplies and workers to a pot-growing operation in the Sierra National Forest.

Arturo Lemus Saldana, 20, had pleaded guilty to transporting food, supplies, fertilizer, drip line, ammunition and workers to a major marijuana grow on public land.

He also was ordered to pay $25,941 in restitution for clean-up and restoration costs for the grow site south of Yosemite, where more than 49,000 marijuana plants were discovered. Five other men have been charged in that operation, some of whom are illegal aliens.

On Aug. 7, 12 Mexican nationals in the country illegally were charged in what authorities call a major marijuana operation in El Dorado and Placer counties.

The operation allegedly financed two large marijuana plots, one on federal Bureau of Land Management land in western El Dorado County and one on Clementine State Park near Auburn in Placer County. Significant environmental damage connected to the marijuana grows was found in both locations, including clear-cutting, stream diversion and illegal pesticides, according to U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott.

On July 22, Jose Andres Prieto Rodriguez, 30, and Jose Rodrigo Rodriguez Vidal, 19, both citizens of Mexico, were charged with manufacturing more than 1,000 marijuana plants on federal land under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management in Yolo County.

The multi-agency prosecutions are "designed not just to pull the plants, but to run the investigation side," said state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement Special Agent Michelle Gregory. "The goal is to identify not just the growers, but move up the chain, getting everyone involved from top to bottom."

And that includes suppliers and even the women who drive up to the grow locations with their children in tow, to drop off supplies, Gregory said.

"We're serving warrants in the neighborhoods, too," Gregory said. "They are living in the communities; they're shopping there, their kids are going to school there, and yet they're involved in this criminal activity."

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail or call (530) 477-4229.

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The Union Updated Aug 25, 2010 11:57PM Published Aug 25, 2010 11:52PM Copyright 2010 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.