HURRICANE, Washington County — Marijuana growing operations historically have been big business on Utah's public lands, but a new approach by law enforcement is changing that, according to a federal attorney.

Growing marijuana on public land is a $30 billion business. In 2010, law enforcement destroyed 106,000 marijuana plants and 17 marijuana farms in Utah, mostly on public land. Last year, that number dropped to 78,000 plants destroyed and nine growing areas, U.S. Attorney for Utah David Barlow said.

This year, efforts by law enforcement has lowered those numbers to 13,000 marijuana plants and only three growing operations found in the state, he said.

Barlow credits the decrease in marijuana operations on public lands to a new strategy that involves a partnership between local law enforcement, the federal government, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

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"We see a small worker in a (marijuana operation), but there's a drug cartel member who's controlling that (operation)," said Frank Smith with the DEA's Rocky Mountain Division. "All of the (marijuana operations) in southern Utah are controlled by the Mexican cartels, and all the profits are going back to Mexico to commit terrorism in Mexico."

Marijuana is a bigger problem than heroin, meth and cocaine trafficking, officials said. Law enforcement agencies are battling the problem and want the cartel to know it isn't welcome in Utah.

"We're well-funded, and to be really candid, if the cartel wants to come to Utah, we're prepared to fight," Smith said.

Viviane Vo-Duc