- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2007

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents have seized more than 25,000 marijuana plants with a street value of $50 million in processed marijuana and arrested 17 persons in raids in the Tonto National Forest in Arizona, the agency said yesterday.

DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said five separate marijuana cultivation operations were eradicated, all during the growing season, which usually lasts from May to October. The raids were carried out by the Gila County Narcotics Task Force, which includes the DEA, Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Forest Service and Phoenix Police.

“This eradication operation means that thousands of marijuana plants never made it into our neighborhoods, and millions of dirty dollars never made it into the drug trade,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Elizabeth W. Kempshall.

Mr. Payne said most of the cultivation areas were in remote areas off normal trails in or near Maple Springs, Pigeon Springs, Promontory Butte, See Springs, Gold Creek Canyon and Hinton Canyons within the Tonto National Forest. Paid to cultivate and water the plants, many of those arrested lived and worked in the gardens for several days up to several months at time, Mr. Payne said.

Others, he said, would re-supply them with materials to assist with plant cultivation as well as food and other supplies necessary for wilderness survival.

Gila County Sheriff John R. Armer said since 2003, the task force has eradicated in excess of 30 illegal marijuana farms and more than 200,000 plants in the Gila County area. The seizures and eradications, he said, would have a street value as high as $170 million.

“The Arizona Department of Public Safety is proud to be a part of the Gila County Narcotics Task Force. This successful eradication of a major drug operation will help keep Arizonans safe and will impact the flow of illegal drugs not just within the state but throughout the country,” said Roger Vanderpool, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

According to the Agriculture Department, four of Arizona’s six national forests — Coconino, Kaibab, Prescott and Tonto — have been involved in marijuana plant eradication since 2004. The majority of those eradications occurred on two sites in Coconino National Forest, for a total of 19,982 plants and 13 sites in Tonto National Forest for a total of 132,047 plants.

From 2004 through Oct. 23, 2006, a total of 18 sites and 155,591 plants have been eradicated in the program.

The Tonto National Forest, the fifth largest forest in the U.S., includes almost 3 million acres.

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