By AMY LINDBLOM
More than 8,000 4-foot-tall marijuana plants were uprooted from Stanislaus National Forest land east of Tuolumne yesterday and narcotics agents said another 12,000 were still to be pulled from the massive plantation.
The operation marked the kickoff of the 2003 pot eradication season for the statewide Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) program.
As they did yesterday, today law enforcement officers from the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office, Stanislaus National Forest, CAMP, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, California National Guard and the National Park Service continued removing the thousands of nearly mature plants from two other commercial plantations within 4 miles of yesterday's haul.
Sgt. Jim Mele, who heads the sheriff's department narcotics team, said the two-day operation is expected to yield 20,000 plants. Once pulled, the plants were netted, lifted out by a helicopter and were to be destroyed, thereby robbing the growers of $40 million. That's the pot's estimated street value, agents said.
Tuolumne Narcotics Team members said they expect to raid and uproot several more marijuana gardens growing around the county in the next two months.
No arrests were made yesterday. But TNT officers and Forest Service law enforcement officers had previously seen two Hispanic men in the area, most likely there to tend the gardens for the summer, Mele said.
Early yesterday morning, a sheriff's department SWAT team and five other state and federal law enforcement officers raided the area in an effort to catch the gardeners.
However, sheriff's Lt. George Ruckman said the two men were gone and likely left before the latest rainstorms, because no footprints were found near the campsite, which was made up of a lean-to shelter, sleeping bags and cooking utensils. No weapons were found.
The 8,000 plants destroyed yesterday were found in three separate gardens that the agents dubbed the Basin Creek grow. Officers carrying 40-pound backpacks loaded with water and tools had to climb and hack their way in or be airlifted into steep terrain off Forest Service Road 2N07, off Cottonwood Road, about five miles outside Tuolumne.