Wednesday morning, an armed group of 16 state agents wearing camouflage took part in the eradication of four illegal marijuana plantation sites in the hills above Watsonville. Two were inside Mt. Madonna County Park, and the other two in private property that borders the park.
Authorites collected approximately 20,000 of the plants on Wednesday, with a street value between $25 and $30 million, said Sgt. Troy Smith, spokesman for the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office.
The agents were a unit of the "Campaign Against Marijuana Planting" or CAMP, a program that has been destroying illegal marijuana camps throughout California since 1983.
The sites were found during the traditional reconnaissance patrols that take place between January and June.
Then, on Wednesday, agents from a combination of law enforcement organizations—California National Guardsmen, deputies from the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office and other state agencies—were dropped using a rope from a helicopter, due to the rugged terrain.
Clandestine marijuana gardens are common in the Santa Cruz Mountains and other rural, remote areas on the Central Coast. Mt. Madonna County Park, where the grows were taken out Wednesday, a densly wooded area at the top of the mountains about halfway between Watsonville and Gilroy on Highway 152.
CAMP crews spend the summer months literally cutting down thousands of marijuana plants in illegal, outdoor grows across the state. Like two of the gardens removed Wednesday, many are on public lands.
Last year CAMP collected over 4 million plants and CAMP Cmdr. Neil Cuthbert expects that this year collection will be even greater.
"I am not seeing any less. Every year this program exceeds the following year," Cuthbert said.
The existence of these illegal marijuana groves can be cause of serious concern to visitors, wildlife and the habitat of the park, he said. Both CAMP and Santa Clara County sheriff's deputies claimed to have found weapons in the camp sites of these hidden marijuana groves.
"People come out here and like to enjoy the environment," said Cuthbert. "There are weapons out there, and the people in these growth sites occasionally do take actions to protect them."
There is still no word as to who was in control of these sites, but the sheriff's office said that work is being done to find the growers .
"What we do is try to identify the subjects and see if we can tie them to any kind of cartels that are out there, but that is a work in progress," said Sgt. Smith.
These growth sites also pose a serious problem for the environment. Harmful pesticides are used and all the trees and plants were cleared from the sites. CAMP also estimated this Wednesday’s eradicated growth sites to be the size of a full football field.
"We work in in collaboration with state Department of Fish and Game, and they will come and assist us in clearing the areas and making them livable habitats again for the wildlife," said Sgt. Smith. "It poses an enormous environmental damage to the area."
According to Cuthbert, the plants appeared to not have matured for the most part. Despite this detail, Cuthbert considered the operation a success because it kept future plants from maturing and therefore being sold.
The cuts plants will be disposed off by the county and buried in landfills if they are found to be mature. If they are too young for sale, they will be buried on site. No specific numbers were given as to how much money would have resulted by the selling of the found plants. However, Smith of the Sheriff's Office said the a pound of marijuana tends to go for $2,000.
The illegal cultivation of marijuana occurrs around the county, but Smith said that it is too early in the season to tell what sort of activity is occurring.