ST. GEORGE — A joint task force took down a large stand of marijuana plants in Washington County Friday, airlifting the illicit product out of a remote canyon in Dixie National Forest.
A 60-person team removed about 3,600 plants, which would have yielded about a pound of marijuana each, or $7.2 million worth of pot, Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher said. Officers on scene said most of the crop appeared to have been planted a few months ago and was ready to harvest.
Officers from the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, SWAT, multiple law enforcement agencies and others aided in the effort. No arrests were made.
Pulsipher said the county’s task force had been hunting for the site for the past three years, finally stumbling upon it in a helicopter search earlier this year. The sheriff’s office had partnered with Drug Enforcement Administration for the aerial survey of Southern Utah, which turned up three sites.
The pilot decided to look at the canyons near Browse on a trip to refuel, Pulsipher said. The area hadn’t been a search priority because it doesn’t have a water source.
“(The growers) are piping water into this canyon, approximately a mile and a half,” he said. “They’ve hauled the pipe in there, buried it and concealed it as well as they can.”
The site, tucked away in a hard-to-reach area of the canyon, has been polluted and damaged by trash, fertilizers, pesticides and tree removal.
“There’s a real mess up there,” Pulsipher said. “With all the fertilizer, they’re just dumping it into the water sources and polluting our public lands; they’re using pesticides and bug sprays up in there — it’s a lot of damage.”
Part of the team approached the site from a “tactical direction” Friday morning, hiking through a slot canyon to reach the grow. A Department of Public Safety helicopter was then used to extract marijuana plants and trash from the canyon and transport it to the remaining officers about a mile away. The load was later destroyed.
Other than a pellet gun, no weapons were recovered.
The task force is still actively investigating drug activity in the county, Pulsipher said. They moved in on the Browse grow after continued surveillance showed that the area seemed to have been abandoned.
“We started noticing some of the plants yellowing up about a week and a half ago,” he said. “We don’t know what spooked them or why. We’re still trying to continue our investigation.”
In the meantime, Forest Service officials will begin cleanup and reclamation efforts in the area.