A record 223,555 marijuana plants worth nearly a half-billion dollars were pulled from 20 remote Tuolumne County locations in the past two weeks by a team of local, state and federal officers.
The street value is estimated at $447 million on the assumption that each plant could yield a pound of marijuana worth $2,000, according to Sgt. Jeff Wilson of the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department.
Wilson said it was by far the largest haul in the northern California county's history. He couldn't pinpoint the next highest total, but a 2007 operation yielded 26,000 plants.
Over the past few years, reported marijuana plant eradications in Tuolumne County generally have ranged from 5,000 to 15,000 plants.
According to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, California's top five counties in 2008 for marijuana discoveries were Lake (499,508 plants), Tulare (395,489), Shasta (394,375), Mendocino (231,802) and Humboldt (145,762).
That the recent operation in Tuolumne County would have ranked fourth overall for that entire year makes the recent find even more startling.
No arrests were made and no officers were injured during the operation, which wrapped up this week, Wilson said.
Officers from the Tuolumne Narcotics Team, the U.S. Forest Service, the state department of Fish and Game, the Department of Justice Campaign Against Marijuana Planting and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management took part in the operation.
One of the "gardens" discovered outside of Columbia yielded 66,000 plants, Wilson said.
Some of the plants were fairly young, others were mature.
The eradication season generally begins in late June and can extend into October, according to the DEA. Wilson said growers usually come into the area in the early spring, with the harvest season starting around now.
Officers combed hillsides through deep underbrush, where most of the plants were found.
To find the plants, Wilson said officers flew over forests around the county looking for sources of water, natural drainage points and the different type of green that often marks marijuana gardens. He said the gardens range in shapes and sizes, from 50 yards wide to narrow ones a mile long.
He said those on the ground caring for the plants generally run off at the sound of the helicopter. Sometimes they're found, other times they're not.
Once officers spot the garden, Wilson said, they return to base to land the helicopter and then head out on foot.
Wilson said once officers arrive they start pulling the plants, putting stacks of 50 - counted and recorded by an officer - into a net to be hauled away by helicopter. They're put in a wood chipper and buried at an undisclosed location.
While no suspects were caught, officers found ammunition, food and reading material, some that led them to believe the workers are from Mexico, Wilson said.
He said the areas where plants were discovered wouldn't be a likely spot for hikers or campers.
This is so deep in the underbrush, even if you were an avid hiker, you wouldn't go there because there's nothing to see, Wilson said.
By BRIAN CLARK
Fri, Jul. 02, 2010
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Eradication effort in California county yields 223,555 marijuana plants