Published Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011 | 9:47 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011 | 5:18 p.m.
Authorities seized thousands of marijuana plants Wednesday while investigating an outdoor grow operation on Mount Charleston, officials said.
Investigators found at least 3,000 — but probably closer to 4,000 — marijuana plants at the site and are airlifting them out, said Kent Bitsko, director of the federal Nevada High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program. They also found evidence of people camping at the site, which contained a water diversion system to feed the plants, he said.
U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Judy Suing said the 3- to 4-acre marijuana field was discovered by a routine aerial observation team several weeks ago. The location is in the Deer Creek area between Lee and Kyle canyons, she said.
Authorities, including Metro Police, the Nevada Department of Wildlife and the Drug Enforcement Administration, entered the site about 4:30 a.m. to collect evidence, Suing said.
“Our concern with a lot of these marijuana gardens is public safety,” she said.
She said the grow operations damage the environment by diverting water to the marijuana plants, while also harming wildlife and other plants with fertilizers and pesticides.
The area was likely hidden by trees and brush from the recreation area's many hikers. Removing the marijuana and airlifting the plants from the forest is a tiresome process that could stretch into Thursday, Bitsko said.
"It's rugged country," he said. "It's hard to sneak up on (the farms) and it's easy for them to disappear."
Illegal marijuana farms on public land are common in California and some other states, but outdoor growth was largely unheard of in Nevada's desert landscapes until recently, Bitsko said. At least 20 officers from local police agencies have received training in recent months on how to spot outdoor marijuana farms and officials in Sacramento have helped lead the training, Bitsko said.
Law enforcement officials suspect crackdowns in California are pushing the growers into Nevada.
Sarah Pullen, special agent in the Los Angeles field division of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said authorities have been seizing more outdoor marijuana grow sites. Last year, authorities dismantled 1,481 outdoor grow sites in California compared to 12 in Nevada, according to DEA data.
The recent increase could mean there’s both more marijuana cultivating sites, many on public land, and better enforcement methods by authorities, Pullen said.
In California, the DEA works with the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement’s CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting) program to dismantle operations, Pullen said. A task force including multiple agencies in Nevada works to do the same, she said.
Authorities conduct aerial and ground searches for the cultivating sites, where investigators often find garbage, tents for the site’s guards, chemical dumps and systems diverting water from nearby streams, Pullen said.
“You’d think it would be hard to see from the air, but the color of marijuana plants is so different, they tend to be easier to spot,” she said.
Drug trafficking organizations run most of the larger outdoor growing operations with guards protecting the sites, Pullen said. That setup can make it difficult for authorities to find the suspects responsible.
“It really varies,” Pullen said of arrests made in connection with the sites. “We try very hard to find them, but often the individuals at the locations are just paid to stay there.”
Bitsko said no suspects had been identified as of Wednesday afternoon in connection with the Mount Charleston site.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.