- The Washington Times - Friday, August 28, 2009

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. | An entire section of this Sierra Nevada national park was closed to visitors Thursday while rangers helicoptered came to destroy a marijuana garden growing just a half-mile away from a crystal-filled cave popular with tourists.

Authorities said the garden’s proximity to such a heavily trafficked tourist site was unusual and reflects a newfound boldness among growers, who are now planting marijuana near trails and access roads at an increasing number of parks.

“The real tragedy about this is that visitors won’t have access to an attraction some have traveled hundreds of miles to see,” said Adrienne Freeman, park spokeswoman. “And what’s worse, this pot has been growing next to a sensitive area where there are dozens of species at risk that are only in this park.”

While the park is best known for its giant sequoia trees, the caves contain hundreds of unique species, at least a couple of dozen of which were discovered over the past few years.

Rangers lowered down on ropes Thursday from a helicopter into Yucca Creek Canyon to investigate at least four grow sites in the park. There, among the oaks and conifers, they found trash, propane tanks and miles of hose to irrigate the pot plants, law enforcement officials said.

About three-quarters of the marijuana already had been harvested. Authorities said the value of the pot plants grown at the site, including what was already harvested, was at least $20 million.

The raid marked the first time Sequoia National Park closed a public exhibit for a drug raid, which will cost about $50,000 in lost revenue from ticket sales.

A National Park Service advisory indicated that Crystal Cave is expected to reopen Saturday. The park, where elevations range from 1,300 to 14,494 feet, is in the southern Sierra Nevada, east of California’s San Joaquin Valley.

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