Pot wars: Placer County canyons a battleground

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Michoacán, Mexico pot grower Miguel Villa-Contreras’s farming foray into the hinterlands of California’s Placer County is expected to result in a stiff federal prison sentence and a hefty fine that could reach the seven figures. But the crimes Villa-Contreras pleaded guilty to this week in U.S. District Court also highlight the efforts both law enforcement and growers go to as they play a cat-and-mouse game in the environmentally fragile canyon lands of the Auburn State Recreation Area. Villa-Contreras, 26, pleaded guilty this week in U.S. District Court to marijuana cultivation and conspiring to possess marijuana with intent to distribute. He’s to be sentenced June 13 in Sacramento and faces a 10-year-minimum prison term and a fine of up to $4 million. Over the past four years, the 20,000-acre recreation area has been the scene of several pot grows discovered by law enforcement. The largest raid turned up 22,000 plants in July 2007. A month later, 14,000 more plants were pulled from an isolated recreation area site. That makes the recreation area – which stretches from Auburn city limits to isolated stretches of the North and Middle Forks of the American River – one of the top sites for discovered pot plantations in the state park system. Roy Stearns, State Parks spokesman, said Wednesday that a total of 217,000 cannabis plants have been discovered in 38 marijuana gardens located in state parks around California since 2006. About 40,000 of those plants came from the Auburn State Recreation Area. Stearns said that parkland damage can be severe, with trees cut down, pesticides and other chemical dumped near or into streams, and human waste and trash strewn in isolated areas. The grows are also a public-safety threat from armed guards and booby-trapped gardens, he said. John Heil, U.S. Forest Service spokesman, said that animals are at risk as growers on site sometimes “live off the land,” trapping and killing wild animals. In one raid, a rare ring-tailed cat was found dead at a grow, he said. “Every year, more plants are eradicated,” Heil said. “Our top priority is the safety of our visitors and employees.” Growers often escape, leaving their crops behind. But an investigation involving the California Department of Justice and El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office led to an arrest of several suspects in the Auburn State Recreation Area grow and, ultimately, a conviction. Villa-Contreras was charged with 11 others in an indictment stemming from an investigation into marijuana cultivation on public lands that surrounded the discovery of two pot grows – one in El Dorado County and the other in Placer County. The U.S. Department of Justice stated both grows contained more than 1,600 marijuana plants each. Villa-Contreras and four other suspects were arrested when they traveled from Bakersfield to Stockton to deliver a 25-pound sample of marijuana to undercover law-enforcement agents. In all, Investigators seized a number of firearms and more than 3,300 marijuana plants. By the numbers: National Forest pot grow raids in 2010 Tahoe National Forest - 13 grow sites - 63,156 marijuana plants seized - 33,000 pounds of trash removed - 1,100 hours of labor to restore sites - Two arrests El Dorado National Forest - Eight grow sites - 27,364 plants seized - Five arrests - Five firearms seized - 8,000 pounds of trash removed - 500 hours of labor to restore sites Source: U.S. Forest Service