MADERA COUNTY — Residents of North Fork were worried that there was a fire in the Cascadel Woods area on Thursday, due to all the helicopter activity.
Though there was no fire, Task Force agents did spend the entire day in the Sierra National Forest, ripping out more than 20,000 marijuana plants and hauling out nearly six thousand pounds of waste and close to five miles of drip line.
Agents with the Madera County Narcotic Enforcement Team (MADNET), US Forest Service, CA Fish & Wildlife as well as sworn personnel assigned to Madera County Regional SWAT Team, eradicated gardens near Peckinpah and Central Camp.
Central Camp – 17,103 plants
Peckinpah – 3,018 plants
Agents have tied the trio of gardens to a drug trafficking organization based in Mexico, according to the Madera County Sheriff’s Office.
The 12-hour marijuana eradication operation, which involved 22 sworn personnel, also focused on reclamation. In addition to the marijuana plants, trash and drip line, 1,000 pounds of fertilizer and close to 100 pounds of poison were removed from the backcountry.
In an effort to include reclamation as part of these operations, eradication missions are now taking almost twice as long, but agents say they have no choice. If they leave behind well-stocked campsites and the elaborate irrigation systems, growers will return and replant before the season ends.
Agents can ill afford to keep returning to the same location if they are going to tackle the vast number of marijuana gardens growing in the high country, says the Sheriff’s Office.
It’s an annual battle agents fight, hoping that by dismantling the entire marijuana operation now, they not only minimize the environmental devastation but will keep the growers from returning and replanting.
Throughout the day, orange bags bearing the logo, “Don’t Trash California,” grew in numbers, filling the trailers brought in to haul away the several thousand pounds of debris.
Much of what is removed doesn’t go to waste said Kevin Mayer, U.S. Forest Service Special Agent.
“What we can salvage from these grow sites, we donate to local volunteer organizations across the state.”
For example, unused coiled drip line will be donated to groups like Tree Fresno and the High Sierra Volunteers Trail Crew. FDA approved fertilizer in bags that have not been opened, along with stoves, propane tanks and starter trays found littering the sites are also donated to charities.
Plastic that is no longer usable is recycled. Canned goods, if deemed acceptable are donated to shelters.
“We try to transport as little garbage as possible to the landfills,” says Mayer.
Agencies involved in Madera County’s 2013 Eradication Mission, each play an integral role in the operation.
· It is MADNET’s role to find these gardens, investigate the growing operations and track the growers. In some instances, agents are still working cases tied to growing operations from years past.
MADNET is a multi-agency drug enforcement team made up of sworn personnel from all Madera County Law Enforcement agencies. It operates under one Commander from California’s Department of Justice Bureau of Investigation.
During his first term in office, Sheriff John Anderson spearheaded the formation of MADNET and created a Memorandum of Understanding with the State of California, allowing various agencies to work together to tackle the large drug problem in Madera County.
When it comes time to launch the eradication missions, MADNET relies on the U.S. Forest Service, California Fish & Wildlife and SWAT personnel.
· The US Forest Service not only provides agents to help remove the trash and plants, it also supplies air support which is crucial to a successful operation.
· CA Fish & Wildlife agents are a tremendous asset during these missions, because they are the ones trained in handling hazardous materials. Of great concern is the environmental impact caused by the toxic chemicals growers bring into the backcountry. The poisonous materials seep into the soil as well as the streams.
Once Fish & Wildlife has separated toxins from the rest of collected debris, they are handed over to a licensed contractor, who then delivers the several pounds of hazardous material to a proper hazardous waste facility.
· The Madera County Regional SWAT Team serves as added protection for the agents, since the growers are typically armed. It is often the role of the SWAT Team to enter these gardens first. Once the gardens are deemed safe, they too participate in the eradication operation.
The work is grueling and often physically taxing. On Thursday’s operation, for example, agents worked at an elevation of roughly 6,000 feet, under a thick blanket of smog created by the recent fire in Mariposa County.
Breathing became difficult at times, so agents could not work as quickly as they otherwise would under different conditions.
MADET operates a 24/7 hotline. Anyone with information about illicit drug activity in Madera County is urged to call 559-675-7776.