Most Nevada County residents know a lot of marijuana is being grown here - both legally with medical marijuana recommendations and illegally for sale.
But seeing it firsthand drives it home.
During the height of the outdoor-growing marijuana season, members of the Narcotics Task Force conduct flyovers throughout the county. And during an August ride-along, I got the bird's eye view of backyard grows from Dog Bar Road to Wolf Mountain in the south county, from Alta Sierra to Rough and Ready and up the San Juan Ridge north of Nevada City.
One thing's for sure - any suggestion that all the pot is out on the Ridge is simply untrue. We hadn't been in the air more than five minutes before task force member JD (an undercover officer) was pointing out some possibly illegal backyard grows off Dog Bar Road. Just past a school, where children frolicked on the playground, the helicopter dipped over one grow, then another.
I counted five or six in less than 15 minutes, just on my side of the helicopter. In one valley alone, JD counted nine. The backyard grows were easy to spot, some with elaborate irrigation systems.
During the flight, JD had the pilot circle above some of the grows, taking copious photos. He said the task force likely would do spot checks at some of the grows, to make sure the owners are in legal compliance. An arrest reported in The Union a few weeks later was from one of those plantations.
The helicopter then headed up the middle Yuba River, out of North San Juan into the Tahoe National Forest to look for "DTO" or drug trafficking organization grows - illegal cultivations by Mexican cartels, often using hired laborers from around California.
Noon is the best time to look, JD explained - that's when it's easiest to spot marijuana growing under the sheltering canopies of evergreens. Some giveaways? Black irrigation tubing, or large brush piles in the middle of nowhere.
The task force always tries to look for cartel grows when they fly; they have seen a decrease in these DTO grows this year, possibly due to the unfavorable early weather, Selleck said.
On the day I flew with the task force, we didn't see any grows in the forest, but just two days earlier, the task force had helped Sierra County with a large commercial marijuana-growing operation in the Tahoe National Forest, off Pliocene Ridge Road between Pike and Allegheny.
According to Sgt. Guy Selleck, head of the Narcotics Task Force, most growers in the county rotate between indoors and outdoors, depending on the season.
"What we're seeing is that they start the plants inside until they get too big, then move them out," Selleck said.
"Especially with the late season we've had," JD added, "when you see plants as big as cars, you know they were started inside."
Seen from the air, the size of the marijuana plants can be hard to estimate for the uninitiated. Most plants will yield between one to five pounds of processed marijuana, JD said, with about 2 1/2 pounds being harvested from the average plant.
"We've taken down 16-by-16 (foot) plants," Selleck said.
"That's a lot of medicine," JD added.
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.