Pot farm could set record for Arizona
Woman finds 30,000-plus plants growing in Tonto National Forest
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 4, 2006 12:00 AM
TONTO NATIONAL FOREST - Authorities say a woman scattering her mother's ashes in Tonto National Forest stumbled upon what could be the largest marijuana farm ever found in Arizona.
More than 30,000 marijuana plants cover the slopes of a canyon about 20 miles east of Payson. The crop was growing on what investigators said was a 2-year-old operation hidden beneath a canopy of thorny locust trees.
At least four workers nurtured the plants from seedlings to maturity, with some plants growing as tall as 9 feet, authorities said. The workers constructed a sophisticated irrigation system to funnel creek water through half-inch pipes to the garden below, using valves to regulate the flow of water. advertisement
"They put a lot of time and effort into these, and I'm sure it just killed them to leave it behind," said Lt. Kirk Bryce of the Department of Public Safety in Flagstaff.
Bryce said nobody has been apprehended in connection with the pot farm.
Arizona authorities have shut down five marijuana gardens on state lands so far this year. In 2005, there were seven major busts that yielded a total of 220,000 pounds of pot with a street value of about $110 million, authorities said.
Rim country has been home to most of the crops. It's rugged, remote, blanketed in forest and teeming with streams, making it "an accommodating host to marijuana trafficking," DPS Sgt. Jack Johnson Jr. said.
Those conditions are similar to other state lands, and the problem is not exclusive to Arizona. Across the nation, growers are utilizing state lands to cultivate marijuana plants, said Robin L. Poague, special agent in charge of the U.S. Forest Service southwest region.
Marijuana is relatively easy to grow. All it needs is soil, water, indirect sunlight and a warm climate.
DPS officials said this week's crop was worth at least $30 million in the Arizona market, perhaps double or triple in central and eastern parts of the country. If the plants had made it to harvest, which was five to seven weeks out, the yield would have been distributed to metropolitan cities nationwide, Bryce said.
The pot farm covered half a mile, its southernmost edge a 30-minute hike from Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery, a tourist attraction. A team of Drug Enforcement Administration agents spent most of Thursday plucking plants from the earth.
A helicopter took the bundles to be burned about four miles south of the field. Authorities could have the field cleared by the end of the weekend.
DPS officials had been watching the field since May 30. Officers attempted to arrest three workers last week but a fog set in, making their escape possible.
The workers were long gone Thursday, but traces of them remained. A shrine of dried flowers and pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe sat beneath a locust tree close to the crop. The place where they held camp a short climb away was littered with food and trash. There was an abandoned tent and sleeping bags, and several black socks hung from a branch next to a pair of jeans.
Local authorities have arrested two people this year in connection with growing operations. Those men, both undocumented immigrants, were detained last month during a marijuana field raid near Skunk Creek, north of Phoenix. They told authorities they tended to the 8,000 plants as repayment for being smuggled across the border, according to DPS.DPS Director Roger Vanderpool said Mexican drug cartels have been behind the pot farms in recent years and aren't afraid to resort to brute measures.
Forest Service employees have warned hikers to beware of marijuana operations, which are often manned by armed guards.
"They will do whatever it takes to protect their product," Vanderpool said. "Will it get more violent? Yeah. These folks don't know whether you're a citizen hiking, law enforcement or a rival drug dealer trying to take the crop."
Meanwhile, Forest Service officials also worry about the damage to the ecosystem.
Poague said it could take years for the land to recover from damage inflicted by the pot growers.
Arizona Pot Farm Bust
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