Drug activity on federal lands here is focused on growing marijuana at remote sites in rugged terrain, far from public view, Love added. The growers are interested in guarding their plants rather than doing battle over smuggling routes.
"There are no 'hot zones' per se," added Sue Thomas, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration supervisory special agent.
"But there absolutely is a danger to the public when you have armed drug traffickers protecting their crops."
To date, the most serious incident happened in 2010 in Garfield County, Thomas said. A grower left his grow site after a dispute with fellow workers and encountered a group of teenage girls in a recreation area. The grower pointed his sawed-off shotgun at the girls and demanded their cellphones.
The girls feared for their lives, Thomas said. They felt the only reason the man didn't shoot them is because there were too many girls, and he didn't have enough ammunition.
"It's not a huge issue, but it certainly could be a catastrophe that is waiting to happen," she said of the backcountry danger.
Marijuana grow sites have been concentrated in the south and central parts of the state, particularly in Iron, Washington and Beaver counties, Thomas said. Their relative proximity to the I-15 corridor is no coincidence, she added.
The freeway provides a convenient route from Utah grow sites to the California organizations that run them using undocumented laborers recruited out of the Las Vegas area, she said.
No Utah residents or persons in the U.S. legally have been arrested in recent grow-site eradication operations in Utah, she added.
Other Utah counties that have had known cartel-related marijuana gardens include Kane, Sevier, Garfield and Wayne counties.
Visitors to Utah's backcountry can protect themselves by sticking to established roads and trails and being aware of tell-tale signs of the operations, especially black irrigation piping running along creek beds and near other perennial water sources.
Those irrigation systems can sometimes run for miles across public lands, diverting water to the marijuana gardens.
"We strongly recommend that you look first for the piping," Love said. "There's a ton of it out there."
Other signs to watch out for: vegetation that has been cleared and piled up, makeshift kitchens, propane tanks (used for preparing food), trash, and fertilizer bags or car batteries — which growers use to charge cellphones.
What should members of the public do when they come across these items in the backcountry?
"Back out quietly and immediately the exact way you came in," Thomas advised. If possible, mark the location by GPS or by noting natural landmarks, she said. "Leave quickly and quietly and contact law enforcement."
With concentrated law enforcement efforts, major marijuana growing activity in Utah may be on the decline, she said. In 2010, 106,000 plants were seized; in 2011, 78,000.
"My hope is they just pack up and leave the state," Thomas said. But the new growing season starts in a few weeks. "You never know what an eradication year is going to bring."
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