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Washington County Sheriff's office
Aerial photo of one of five separate marijuana growing operations which were busted up Wednesday in Iron and Washington counties.

Law enforcement officers in southern Utah have made what may be one of the largest drug busts in state history.

Five separate marijuana growing operations were busted Wednesday in Iron and Washington counties. Authorities raided four operations in the Pine Valley area of Washington County. Sheriff's deputies estimated there were 80,000 plants growing in that area.

"Just from the air, it looks like it could be one of the biggest we've had in the state," said Washington County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Rob Tersigni. "From what we could see from the air, it looks like there are a lot of plants."

Acting on a tip, authorities raided the sites Wednesday morning. No arrests had been made by that afternoon, Tersigni said.

"They came across some campsites and there may be people there. The stoves were still warm," he said.

Officers from several cities, counties and federal agencies were tapped to help out, as well as a Utah National Guard helicopter. Plants were cut down to be taken in as evidence.

In Iron County, a marijuana farm with about 10,000 plants was dismantled in Shurtz Canyon near Cedar City. The Iron-Garfield Narcotics Task Force led the bust.

"We believe it's organized crime at its best," said Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower. "They're very sophisticated in what they do. They're serious about making a lot of money on this."

Last week, about 3,000 marijuana plants were seized when a growing operation was discovered in a canyon south of Cedar City. Five people were arrested Wednesday in connection with that operation when a search warrant was served on a home in unincorporated Iron County.

Gower said it is possible that all of the marijuana growing operations are connected.

"There's some similarities," he said. "There's a good chance they're linked."

The plants were being grown on federal and state lands, authorities said. Marijuana farms are a growing problem plaguing federal lands in the West. A 2005 report from the U.S. Department of Justice said the problem is increasing, with drug farms being tied to the Mexican mafia.

Drug operations have been discovered in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.


E-MAIL: bwinslow@desnews.com