Pot farms on public lands increasing

CAMP VERDE – This already is a record year for busting large pot farms on public lands in the Southwest, federal law enforcement officials say.

Officials estimate they have located 110,000 marijuana plants valued at $165 million at six sites within a 100-mile radius on the Tonto and Coconino national forests in Arizona so far this year.

That’s more than double what they’ve ever found in an entire year in the Southwest Region that includes Arizona and New Mexico, said Pancho Smith, U.S. Forest Service special agent. Most years they find fewer than 2,000 plants, he estimated.

“This is an astronomical increase in marijuana cultivation,” said Robin Poague, patrol commander for the Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

Federal law officers are seeing a shift from relatively small, local pot farms to large-scale commercial operations, Poague said.

And all those arrested so far have been illegal aliens from Mexico, Smith said. The bases of the entire operations are in Mexico, he said.

“It’s less risky to grow it in the United States than to try to bring it across the border,” Smith said.

The flurry of activity has prompted officials to warn hikers to be wary.

During surveillance before the most recent eradication of more than 20,000 plants along Fossil Creek near the Verde River, officers saw one grower carrying an assault rifle and another with a pistol, Smith said. A hiker first reported that illegal operation.

The U.S. Forest Service has taken the unusual action of closing the entire 11,550-acre Fossil Springs Wilderness Area about 30 miles southeast of Camp Verde while government officials remove the illegal marijuana plants and rehabilitate the area.

The work could take a few weeks because of the rugged location and limited access, Public Information Officer Karen Malis-Clark of the Coconino National Forest said. Officers got special permission to use helicopters but the area is inaccessible to vehicles.

“It’s a terrible mess,” Poague said. “They do it without any concern for the environment.”

Officers found the plants along a three-mile stretch of Fossil Creek, where the growers had set up miles of irrigation tubes, Poague said.

As many as 10 people were living in the delicate Fossil Creek drainage to guard the pot farm, and they left trash and human waste all over the place, Poague and Smith said. The creek is home to rare endangered fish.

The growers cleared out native vegetation and rocks to make room for the plantings. They also used quite a bit of fertilizer on the plants and left more sitting around in bags, Smith said.

“Without any consideration for the aesthetics of the area, they cut down a lot of tree limbs,” so the pot plants that were as tall as 12 feet could get more sunlight, Poague added.

Poague is stationed in Albuquerque now, but he helped eradicate the pot farm and also happens to have grown up in Prescott. Smith is headquartered in Phoenix and helped lead the casework.

The U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Arizona Department of Public Safety, Gila and Coconino county sheriff’s offices, and Flagstaff police all were involved in the investigation.

They arrested four Mexican nationals in the Fossil Creek bust. Federal officials charged them last week with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, which carries a mandatory term of 10 years in prison and/or a $4 million fine.

The men are Jesus Castillo-Malendrez, 31; Gerardo Manzo-Pulido, 19; Oscar Nunez-Medina, 40; and David Valencia-Gonzalez, 28. Officials also are charging Nunez-Medina with “possession of ammunition that has affected interstate commerce by an alien not lawfully present in the United States.”

Contact the reporter at jdodder@prescottaz.com