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Major pot farm raided near Strawberry August 16, 2005 - azdailysun.com
Pot Bust May be Largest Ever in U.S.
Law enforcement officers have busted one of the biggest marijuana-growing operations in the state -- and perhaps the nation -- in the Fossil Springs Wilderness on national forest lands southeast of Camp Verde. Some of the alleged growers had been arrested but more were still being sought by officers in helicopters and on foot as of late Monday afternoon.
"It may be the biggest (pot) bust in U.S. history," Arizona Department of Public Safety Cmdr. Dan Wells said.
If that is the case, it would mean authorities would uproot and destroy more than 80,000 plants, based on previous busts in other parts of the country.
Law enforcement officers declined to quantify the number of plants seized Monday, saying they didn't know the number yet or couldn't speak while an investigation was ongoing.
But the early morning raid uncovered a pot farm large enough that it may take a week to eradicate, law enforcement officials said.
Law enforcement officers flew north of Strawberry and Pine on Monday in search of fleeing suspects and told motorists not to park along the roadside or pick up hitchhikers near the junction of highways 260 and 87.
They struggled in mud to get to the site, a ravine in the wilderness area that lies at the southern end of the Coconino National Forest.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix declined to comment on the case.
The region around Payson has been known for high-quality marijuana.
The Tonto National Forest just to the south of Monday's bust was one of the country's top 10 busiest forests for drug enforcement officials in 2003, according Department of Justice statistics comparing volumes of pot seized.
Authorities found 19,000 marijuana plants with a street value of $23 million in a remote canyon southeast of Payson two years ago.
But California and Kentucky are the most popular places for growing marijuana, according to a Department of Justice analysis. National forests provide the remote hideaways where pot is most often seized on public lands.
The farms typically range from small affairs of a few plants grown by individuals to plots of 30,000 plants grown by drug cartels.
The Department of Justice predicted in a report that marijuana farming in forests nationwide would only increase and become more commercial, led primarily by drug cartels with ties to Mexico.