SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - Its that time of year again when law enforcement ventures into the Central Coast backcountry areas to sniff out and wipe out pot farms growing on public and private land.
The annual marijuana eradication program is federally funded and includes personnel from local county sheriff's departments, the U.S. Forest Service and the California National Guard.
"Everything is so quiet, peaceful and beautiful you don't expect that type of thing to be going on in your own backyard", says Theresa Plastino who owns more than 300 acres of rolling backcountry hills in southern San Luis Obispo County.
"I believe I have angels around this place that protects me and the whole area", Plastino says.
Law enforcement agencies involved in marijuana eradication efforts often find the illegal pot farms in the backcountry are maintained and secured by armed members of Mexican drug cartels.
Booby traps and other dangerous security measures are set to alert them of people encroaching near the illegal grows.
Because of the vast areas of open space, the backcountry in Santa Barbara County, San Luis Obispo county and in eastern Ventura County remain popular areas for growing marijuana.
"There are areas where we don't go up in there", Plastino says about her property, "its full of poison oak, very steep areas in the back."
Law enforcement agencies say that's what the pot growers look for, remote, heavily canopied areas that are protected from aerial surveillance and off the beaten path of hikers and campers.
"I'm blown away about that", Plastino says, "I can't imagine having that happen on my property, but maybe I should go back out there and check it out."
Here is the press release from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department:
"The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office, Special Investigations Bureau and Santa Barbara County Air Support Unit, with the assistance of the United States Forest Service and the California National Guard, are searching Santa Barbara County for unlawful marijuana cultivation sites.
The Sheriff's Office is requesting the assistance of all community members in identifying suspected marijuana cultivation sites, as well as suspicious activities that are possibly related to unlawful marijuana cultivation.
Through our receipt of federal grant funding, the Sheriff's Office is able to proactively address these significant ongoing criminal enterprises, while simultaneously minimizing the fiscal impact upon our community.
Unlawful marijuana cultivation is a serious community problem within Santa Barbara County. The criminals involved in unlawful marijuana cultivation endanger our community members and are perpetrating these crimes at the expense of our public lands and private landowners.
The cultivation of marijuana on public lands is 100% illegal. Large-scale cultivation of marijuana on private property is generally illegal and is completely illegal when done without appropriate landowner's approval and adherence to all state regulations relating to the compassionate use act.
In all cases, the Sheriff's Office will investigate suspected criminal activity and take appropriate enforcement action including arrest of persons committing criminal acts and seizure and/ or destruction of unlawfully cultivated marijuana.
Unlawful marijuana cultivation sites are oftentimes associated with dangerous and sophisticated drug cartels. During our 2013 operations, our investigators found that many of the unlawful cultivation sites installed on Santa Barbara County public lands were tended by Mexican nationals brought to the area for the express purpose of working at these cultivation sites.
Furthermore, we found firearms or evidence of firearms in almost all of the public land cultivation sites, including one where our investigators were confronted with an armed individual attempting to protect the cultivation site and their criminal proceeds.
Community members and other people visiting our National Forest and other public lands are placed at risk by these criminal operations. Community members who happen upon unlawful cultivation sites, may be harassed or assaulted by the criminals operating and tending the cultivation site. These criminals usually possess weapons and they have been known to place booby-traps designed to seriously maim or kill intruders.
Persons and community groups interested in learning more about the dangers to our community members and visitors caused by these criminal enterprises are encouraged to contact the Jere Melo Foundation via their website, www.jeremelo.org or through Facebook or Twitter.
The Jere Melo Foundation works to educate people about the dangers and damage associated with unlawful marijuana cultivation. The Jere Melo foundation was created by Madeliene Melo, whose husband was shot and killed in August 2011 by criminals associated with unlawful marijuana cultivation.
In addition to the danger of physical harm to our community members, unlawful marijuana cultivation causes significant harm to our environment. The criminals operating unlawful cultivation sites regularly damage and kill the natural flora and fauna present on our public lands.
They destroy or damage indigenous perennial plant species and destabilize soil on sloped lands. They also dam natural springs and streams, rerouting water to areas that are normally arid. Furthermore, they routinely poison and kill animals they believe may damage the plants or the plastic water delivery infrastructure they install on our public lands.
These criminals utilize pesticides and other chemicals without regard to the damage done to the immediate location or to the watersheds that are downslope of the cultivation sites. In one instance during 2013, our investigators found evidence that Carbofuran, a highly toxic banned pesticide was used in a cultivation site within Los Padres National Forest.
These criminals install large campsites in inappropriate areas, leading to an accumulation of large quantities of garbage within our otherwise pristine forest lands. Open flames are used for cooking in almost all unlawful cultivation sites, which are usually found situated in high-fire danger areas.
In most of the cultivation sites investigated by our detectives in 2013, we found large propane tanks (BBQ size) and full size car batteries. The 2009 La Brea Fire, which burned more than 90,000 acres in northern Santa Barbara County, was the result of cooking fire at a camp within an unlawful marijuana cultivation site installed on our public lands.
Once the criminals are finished using and abusing our public lands for their criminal enterprise, they do not clean up their mess! The garbage, poisons and plastic irrigation line are left behind unless Law Enforcement intercedes.
The Sheriff's Office and our partner agencies make a concerted effort to remove the garbage and poisons from our public lands during our cultivation site eradication operations and coordinate with the USFS and landowners to further remediate the damage to our environment.
During our 2013 enforcement operations, Sheriff's Office detectives assisted three private landowners whose lands were trespassed on by marijuana growers. In two of the instances, the rerouting of water by the criminals cultivating the marijuana sites caused a significant financial impact to the landowner, drying up water sources intended for livestock. Our investigators will work with landowners to address any such misuse of their lands by criminals.
The Sheriff's Office encourages community members and other visitors to our public lands who observe suspicious individuals or activity to report this activity to the Sheriff's Office. Activities within or around our public lands that should raise suspicion include:
- Persons carrying irrigation tubing and other gardening supplies into public lands,
- Persons packing in large amounts of food or other living supplies, oftentimes using bags and containers that are not generally associated with backpacking and hiking.
- Persons carrying large propane tanks or full-size car batteries into public lands.
- Creation of new trails leading into drainages or increased use of areas where there would appear to be no attraction.
- Unusual or abrupt loss of water in creeks.
- An odor of marijuana emanating from public land areas
Anyone with information can provide it anonymously by calling (805) 681-4175, by fax at (805) 681-4316 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please provide as much detail pertaining to dates, times, locations (GPS if possible) and subject / vehicle descriptions.
The Sheriff's Office wants to emphasize that community members should not take direct action to address individuals engaging in unlawful marijuana cultivation, as it is not uncommon for the criminals who perpetrate these crimes to threaten or resort to violence in order to protect their criminal enterprise."