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2 farm busts yield millions of dollars in marijuana

The dismantling of a large marijuana operation in Wayne County Friday is the second of its kind in as many days and drug enforcement officials are preparing for the harvest season.

Around 20,000 marijuana plants — with a street value of between $25 million and $60 million — were found on the north slope of Boulder Mountain earlier this week, said Wayne County sheriff's information officer Tal Ehlers. The plants weighed in at about 15,000 pounds.

The growing area was discovered in part by a neighborhood watch group and when police arrived at the scene, they were able to take one person into custody. Ehlers said investigators are continuing to conduct surveillance in the area because they believe there are about "half a dozen" others still at-large.

He said the effort to dismantle the pot farm was "put together quickly" and various groups, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, Central Utah Narcotics Task Force and U.S. Forest Service, were able to complete the task of removing and destroying the plants in two days.

Drug enforcement officers in Tooele discovered similar farms Thursday in Ophir Canyon, removing an amount of marijuana worth $9 million, police said. When officers moved in on that farm, there was a man at the site, but he escaped from officials, prompting a mountain search, police said.

Michael Root, supervisory special agent with the DEA, said discoveries of marijuana farms are not uncommon this time of year.

"This is the time of year that they usually harvest," Root said. "They're found in a variety of ways, but the most likely is early season bull hunters. You get a lot of bull hunters, hikers, campers. I think we'll be busy here for the next three or four weeks."

Root said these farms are often discovered accidentally by outdoorsmen, but drug enforcement officials also utilize the help of informants, and they check on growth sites from previous years. Root said the amount of marijuana growing in Utah has increased significantly in the past few years.

"Last year we had a growth in St. George of 40,000 plants," Root said. "For our fiscal year last year of October to October, we had more than 100,000 plants in Utah, which is a record. It's almost 90,000 more than a few years ago."

DEA officials said they believe this increase in marijuana plants is a result of a greater number of drug traffickers using Utah as a growth site. Frank Smith, assistant special agent in charge with the DEA, said the growers of these are usually "organized criminals" most often based out of California or Mexico who use Utah for its relative proximity to California.

"It seems to be that we see the same groups year after year after year," Smith said. "They're very organized and they're very skilled. Destroying the growth is very important and capturing people in the field is important, but we're looking for organizations."

Occasionally, though, police do run across small-scale growers, like the 59-year-old woman whose home near 1600 South and 1000 East was full of marijuana plants, including one that reached 9 feet in height in her backyard. A loaded gun and drug paraphernalia were also confiscated.

Officials said these farms present a variety of issues, beyond the obvious illegality of growing drugs.

"The folks we arrested yesterday (in Wayne County) were armed and so we are always concerned about citizens," Smith said. "People are camping and hiking, and these traffickers can mistake them for law enforcement. We have to actively protect citizens."

In addition to endangering citizens, Root said, the way these operations are run also present concerns for the environment.

"It's not just the fact that they're growing marijuana, which is illegal," Root said. "They're dumping chemicals and toilet paper, there's stuff going into the groundwater there, just everything nasty you can think of. They've lived there all summer and have no concern for the environment."

e-mail: emorgan@desnews.com