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Federal officials find thousands of marijuana plants on public lands

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WASHINGTON – Federal officials said they seized more than 1 million marijuana plants in an eight-week sweep of Western states this summer, including 25,000 plants found growing on public lands in Arizona.

In all, officials in Operation Mountain Sweep confiscated 25,666 plants in Arizona worth roughly $34 million. Four men have been charged in connection with the largest Arizona site, a seizure of 12,556 plants found on Bureau of Land Management property near the Big Sandy Wash, south of Wikieup.

The eight-week operation involved the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and others in seven Western states. Plants seized in the whole operation could be worth more than $1.45 billion, according to a DEA estimate.

The operation ran from July 1 to Aug. 31, according to the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area office that organized the multistate effort.

Each agency in the operation went about its searching differently, said Steven Martin, BLM assistant special agent in charge of law enforcement in Arizona. But he said they would typically search for marijuana plots with helicopter fly-overs, by hiking an area or through tips from the public.

In the case near Wikieup, in Mohave County, Martin said officials got a tip about the marijuana from hunters.

Growers typically live near their marijuana plots for months, he said, clearing vegetation, cutting down trees, diverting water and using chemicals and pesticides, in addition to leaving human waste and trash.

“This activity poses a significant threat to both public lands and to citizens,” Martin said.

The bureau’s focus after finding a site is to eradicate it and rehabilitate the land, Martin said.

“It’s quite a chore,” he said.

Martin said he has seen this problem since the beginning of his law enforcement career about 30 years ago, but that it “seems to be increasing” in Arizona.

The four men arrested in the Wikieup seizure have each been charged with one count of conspiracy to cultivate marijuana on federal land and one count of cultivation of marijuana on federal land.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Arizona, the Big Sandy Wash site included several plots that were fed by irrigation pipes and a drip-watering system.

Leopoldo Deniz-Ochoa, Noe Israel Cardenas-Delgado, Andres Casillas-Alvarez and Jose Casillas-Castaneda, all Mexican nationals, were arrested on July 10 in connection with the Wikieup site. They have a court hearing set for Dec. 4, according to court documents.

Each count carries a maximum penalty up to life in prison, a $10 million fine, or both, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.