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Inside Look at Illegal Pot Farm Shows Forest Damage

When hundreds of pounds of marijuana is grown in the back country, it’s not only illegal, it uses natural resources.

NewsChannel 3 cameras went where few have gone before — an illegal pot farm located at Happy Canyon in the Santa Ynez Valley.

After driving nearly nine miles from Highway 154, a group of volunteers and journalists walked single file behind four armed Los Padres law enforcement officers and a police dog.

The trail isn’t one people would use for a leisurely hike. The group had to climb under rusted barbed wire at one point.

The hike ended about 3/4 of a mile from the nearest road at the top of a steep hill. It wasn’t immediately obvious that the 10 acre area was once a sophisticated drug operation. Dry chaparral trees camouflaged what the group would soon see.

The trees opened up where the growers cut back the branches, but left the canopy to cover their crop. It’s a trick of the trade that kept the site secret for at least two years.

In video from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, deputies drew their guns and searched the pot farm last year.

“You stumble on it and many times these are booby trapped and most of the time these guys are armed,” said Lt. Jim Solis with Fish and Wildlife.

Two Mexican nationals were arrested when they ran away. Joel Santoyo Lopez and Cipriano Arreola Torres were both deported to Mexico.

Two rifles were found at the site. One-hundred pounds of processed marijuana was seized worth $250,000.

The marijuana plants were grown on the side of a steep hill. Since it was cut back in 2013, all that’s left are dry stalks still stuck in the dirt.

Here on the side of this steep hill is where the marijuana was planted. But since it was cut back last year, all that’s left are these dry stalks still stuck in the dirt.

Some of the most sophisticated irrigation techniques were used. Thousands of feet of drip piping once kept the lush plants green. Most of the tubing remains.

The farm would produce three to five harvests a year. It took a lot of work and it took a lot out of the natural resources.

“What they do is they find the natural springs, they’ll use irrigation line and put them into the spring and then collect the water into these tarps. They’ll fill up pools and they’ll use the pumps to pump out the water and feed the whole garden,” explained a Los Padres law enforcement officer who did not want to be identified.

Los Padres National Forest Biologist Kevin Cooper said during a drought, animals from foxes to frogs rely on the springs and often can’t adapt when the water is taken away.

“Especially during a drought, it’s irritating, it’s disappointing to see this happen. It’s a shame especially during this really critical time, this water which is essential for all wildlife, especially in a dry area like this being diverted,” said Cooper.

The problem isn’t just taking the water out, it’s also what’s being put in it.

“They use herbicides in these areas and poisons that aren’t even legal in the United States. They’re brought up from Mexico,” said Solis.

Areas with the bottles of chemicals are taped off to be disposed of properly. The rest of the garbage was picked up the Los Padres ForestWatch volunteers who were surprised to see the mess.

“You’re just amazed about how deep into the forest that they are. There’s a lot of solid industry here to make this thing happen, right? I just think it’s really misguided,” said Mike Brundage, a volunteer.

Multiple bags of garbage was hauled out of the site. For this part of the forest to heal, it will take time.

“When they say this if Forest Service property, government property, that’s synonymous with this is your property, this is your backyard. You own this land. And these criminals are coming in, they’re violating the law and they’re making it a hazard,” said Solis.

Slideshow: Illegal Marijuana Grow Shows Forest Damage

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