Authorities Remove Final Marijuana Gardens in Massive Valley Bust
By: Norma Yuriar and Caryn Kochergen
SUGAR LOAF, Ca.- Law Enforcement Officers with Operation LOCCUST, (Location Organized Cannabis Cultivators Using Saturation Tactics), are chopping down more than 400,000 marijuana plants growing in Sugar Loaf, deep inside the Sequoia National Forest.
It's an area so remote the only way to get there is to fly in or by foot.
On Thursday, KMPH was escorted by the Tulare County Sheriff's Department on the strenuous 2-hour hike.
Tulare County Sheriff Bill Wittman said the bust is the largest and most sophisticated marijuana growing operation authorities have seen in recent years.
"We've arrested 36 on felony charges so far, and we've confiscated 27 farms," said Sheriff Wittman, who says the total value of this marijuana grow is reported to be $1.6 billion dollars so far.
Local and Federal law enforcement agents with Operation LOCCUST removed one of the last standing gardens growing in this part of the National Forest. "Each plant represents $4,000 per plant and that's a low estimated street value," said Lt. Mike Boudreaux with the Tulare County Sherrif's Department.
The record seizure of more than 420,000 plants in just one week supercedes what the county confiscated for the entire year in 2007.
The Sheriff said the massive marijuana grow is the work of an illegal drug cartel who chose the location not only to cultivate, but live in. During a KMPH tour of the area there were three separate camps including tents, food, and the remains of a deer.
"It's a constant clash with our local wildlife population," said Mike Conely with the U.S. Department of Fish and Game.
Conely said agents are seeing evidence of wildlife being killed, illegally,"we are finding dead animal carcasses, we find fire arms in every camp that we've been into and evidence of poaching," said Conley.
Crews are now working to clean up the area and return this part of the forest back to its natural habitat.
Still, getting the marijuana plants out of there will be a long, intensive process that requires bundling the marijuana, and removing each bunch by air.
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