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Josh Smith, Deseret News
Police seized more than a thousand marijuana plants and miles of black water piping during a raid at an illegal marijuana farm in Washington County Wednesday.

PINE VALLEY, Washington County — These men and women are going to war.

The morning sun glints off the barrels of their black assault rifles and their khaki boots scuff the mud, but instead of flying to some far-off land, these police officers are going to war in their own backyard.

Today's target is an illegal marijuana farm, or "grow," hidden in a nearly inaccessible box canyon just miles from the small southern Utah town of Pine Valley.

A ride with these anti-drug warriors reveals a world foreign to most Americans — an often-unseen conflict deep in the heartland. While piles of seized marijuana plants often make news headlines, the nature of the raids themselves are rarely revealed in depth.

In the pre-dawn hours Thursday, a dozen government trucks and SUVs wind along a dirt road, taking the long way around to avoid alerting any potential pot growers watching from the peaks above.

At an initial staging point about 50 law enforcement officers from across the state or representing federal government gather in a huddle to discuss the day's plan of attack.

Minutes later, the caravan moves on, this time with rifle-toting, camouflage-clad warriors loaded into the backs of pick-up trucks.

Police officers adopt military tactics for "taking down" a remote marijuana farm such as this one, and many of these officers are trained for SWAT operations.

In the woods, however, they ditch the iconic but bulky SWAT helmets, shields and body armor in favor of lighter floppy hats and green camouflage.

Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Sue Thomas said the remote nature and large size of many of the grows requires multiple teams of officers to help trap growers.

"It takes incredible teamwork to actually arrest someone in these grows," she said.

And arrests are vital to the war on drugs. "We can go in and clear the plants anytime," Thomas said. "But that's not entirely why we're here. We really have to trace the levels of these organizations and prevent future grows."

While police are closed-lipped about their investigation techniques and how they find these grows, more and more grows are being raided and shut down, Thomas said.

On their way to raid this latest grow, officers follow Water Canyon Trail, an established Forest Service recreational trail. But soon the teams turn off the beaten path, headed for a location designed to be invisible to even the most dedicated hiker.

Now the hike turns into a brutal scramble through dense brush and over rain-slickened boulders and logs.

The workers who tend marijuana grows avoid establishing any trails, forcing the heavily loaded officers to pick their way gingerly, careful to avoid snapping too many twigs or making any other sound that could alert the growers.

Even though this grow is only two miles from the trailhead, the hike in takes hours.

Each team is equipped with a radio that includes a GPS device displaying each team's location. Moving slowly and deliberately, the teams approach the grow, which is perched high on the canyon's steep slopes.

They take their time because surprise is everything. Agents tell stories of being 15 feet from a grower, only to lose him in the brush because the growers know the land so much better and often have predetermined escape routes.

Suddenly from up ahead, a disembodied yelp pierces what had been an hour of near silence.

Special agent Art Streets grins at the sound. "Contact," he said. The first teams had found the growers and the DEA officer joins the others in creating a blocking line to prevent fugitives from escaping.

Within seconds, a Utah Highway Patrol helicopter roars in overhead, as much to help spot fleeing men as to intimidate them into surrendering.

Four men are soon caught when they are trapped at the top of the ridge. Two more continue to run while the helicopter helps guide ground forces to their location.

When the call first comes over the radio, Street does a double-take, thinking he heard wrong.

"Four in custody?" he asks. When that number is confirmed, the agents start smiling and nodding at each other, knowing that months of investigation have paid off with the arrest of a significant number of suspected growers — people the agents hope will lead them to the drug organization's leaders.

Police catch up with one more man, but the sixth grower disappears into the impenetrable underbrush. Growers have often been found with firearms, but this time the men surrender quietly and the black assault rifles go unfired.

Despite the show of force, most raids end peacefully and so far no one has been injured after stumbling upon a grow in Utah.

While the increase in grows discovered in the Pine Valley Mountains has aroused concern among some nearby residents and would-be hikers, Forest Service officials insist forest lands remain safe.

"The vast majority of national forests are safe and free of illegal marijuana activities," said Forest Service spokeswoman Erin O'Connor. "In 2008 and 2009, the Forest Service detected and eradicated marijuana growing operations on only a fraction of the lands we manage — fewer than 40,000 acres of the total 193 million acres of National Forest."

But the grows remain a fact of life in Utah mountains and O'Connor said visitors should remain vigilant.

"Forest visitors are urged to be observant while hiking and camping in secluded areas and to back out and call for help if they come across suspicious activities," she said.

Police believe that competition among gangs in California and other Western states has led to more organizations establishing grows in Utah.

After securing the grow, officers pull up the plants while a helicopter flies load after load out to a command post where trucks are filled with the plants and transport them to a landfill where they are covered with trash.

According to DEA statistics, Utah has one of the lowest levels of marijuana use in the country, with most of the drugs produced here shipped to other states, Street said.

While it trails such states as California, of the four states that the DEA's Denver Division oversees, Utah has by far the highest number of outdoor marijuana grows, said DEA spokesman Mike Turner.

Utah police have seized more than 100,000 plants this year, and that's mostly in southern Utah. Northern Utah's growing season is shorter and officials expect to make more raids there soon, Thomas said.

Thursday's grow is expansive, with plants scattered for hundreds of yards across the steep, rocky slope. A pot of beans still simmers on a camp stove, evidence of its owner's quick departure.

Officials count about 8,200 plants at this grow, a mid-range number. Some grows have produced as many as 24,000 plants but growers seem to be switching to more, smaller grows, said DEA special agent Brad Cox, who is one of two agents responsible for southern Utah.

Police also seize duffel bags full of "bud," or processed marijuana, at this site.

The camp is a pile of gear, food and garbage. Officials say the environmental impact of these grows has yet to be calculated, but the damage is evident.

Trees are cut and pruned to make canopies to hide the marijuana plants, holes scar the ground and crews are forced to remove loads of garbage, including miles of black water piping.

Marijuana producers are constantly revising their techniques, Cox said.

One technique, visible in Thursday's grow, is the cultivation of smaller plants engineered to be easier to hide.

These small plants can often produce just as much bud as the larger plants, but their size makes them difficult to spot beneath the trees.

Growers have also increased the use of lookouts and are piping their water in from greater distances, making it harder for police to identify and sneak up on the fields.

Cox said drug dealers have told him they can get as much as $1,000 worth of bud from one marijuana plant, giving growers plenty of incentive to keep risking arrest.

So far, all grows in Utah have been traced to drug organizations based in Mexico and most workers who tend the grows in Utah are brought from Mexico or recruited from Hispanic drug gangs in the area, Cox said.

Lt. David Moss, who oversees the Washington County Drug Task Force, said grows in the area have exploded in the past decade.

"When I first worked with the task force, we never did this; now we've done six just this year," he said. "We've definitely seen a steady increase."

Remote marijuana grows produce unique challenges as well, Moss said.

Their clandestine nature makes them hard to find and their remote locations make them hard to clean up, he said. These problems in turn cause more challenges as the eradication operations take a lot of resources and time.

DEA agent Thomas said the "astronomical" costs of each raid are shared by local agencies and federal grants funneled through the state.

Thursday's raid included officers from the DEA, Utah Highway Patrol, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Washington County Drug Task Force, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Adult Probation and Parole, as well as the St. George Police SWAT team and Iron County-based K-9 units.

For the men caught in these grows, the amount of marijuana seized makes the offense a federal crime, which carries harsher punishments that state drug laws, Street said. If convicted, growers face a mandatory minimum 10 years in federal prison.

e-mail: jsmith@desnews.com TWITTER: @DNewsCrimeTeam