By AMY LINDBLOM
and The Associated Press
Of the state's 58 counties, Tuolumne County ranked fourth this year in the statewide effort to crack down on the big business of growing marijuana.
Tuolumne Narcotics Team officers seized 32,249 marijuana plants out of a total of 354,164 uprooted statewide, according to statistics recently released by the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting.
More than 22,000 of the Tuolumne County plants came from a marijuana garden raided near Beardsley Reservoir in early August. That represented the largest marijuana operation ever found in the Stanislaus National Forest.
Sgt. Joe Romeo, head of TNT, said the aggressive efforts by his officers to find and destroy the plants have paid off, helping make this a record-breaking year.
In Calaveras County, 2,594 marijuana plants were seized, CAMP statistics show the 17th highest area in the state.
Officers from Calaveras County Narcotics Enforcement Unit were not available for comment, but Romeo said the number of plants seized by Calaveras County officers without CAMP's help were much higher.
CAMP officials said 74 percent of the plants nabbed in California were sown by growers working for Mexican drug cartels.
The large, heavily funded cartels are attracted by the state's rich soil and remote forests, Attorney General Bill Lockyer said.
The cartels' entrance into the state marks a dangerous shift toward large and sophisticated growing operations, said Sonya Barna, CAMP operations commander.
It used to be an industry controlled by hippies with small gardens,'' Barna said. Now, it's not uncommon to see cartels planting anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 plants in a garden.''
Barna said marijuana grown today is markedly stronger than anything grown in the 60s and 70s.
"This stuff would blow a kid's mind," Barna said.
While the total number of marijuana plants seized was high, law enforcement still has its work cut out in catching the growers only 26 people were arrested in 181 statewide raids this summer, officials said.
"These guys live in the forest for months at a time, really know their surroundings and make escape routes that our guys can't always know about," Romeo said. "We try to get the suspects as they are moving the dried marijuana out of the garden."
State officials said higher pot prices as much as $4,000 a pound make marijuana cultivation a fast-growing industry.
Since the CAMP program started nearly 20 years ago, more than 3 million pot plants have been seized nearly half that number in just the last four years.
The increase in the number of pot gardens in California comes as states push for less severe penalties for growing and carrying marijuana. Seven states have legalized marijuana for medical use and Nevada voters will consider a ballot initiative next week to legalize small amounts of marijuana.
But much of the growing isn't being done by pot farmers for medical use.
Most frequently, armed immigrants tend to guard farms hidden in remote areas of state and national forests and other public land, said Ross Butler, assistant special agent at the Bureau of Land Management.
More than half the pot seized was grown on public land, where armed growers can pose a danger to unsuspecting hikers and hunters, he said.
But, Romeo said, his officers found a marijuana garden this summer on a private ranch the owners seldom visited.
"The crooks had tapped into a spring, made a dam and a pond then laid irrigation lines to the plants from the pond," Romeo said.
In 2000, a father and son hunting on their private land in El Dorado County were shot by growers tending their garden. This year, law enforcement officials shot and killed two armed growers.
Most of the pot was grown in the so-called Emerald Triangle Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties which have long been a favorite among pot producers.
About 30 percent was seized in the Central Valley and another 30 percent came from the Bay Area and Central Coast.
On the Net:
California Department of Justice: caag.state.ca.us