Marijuana plants were eradicated from three separate growing operations near Lake Hemet this morning in a joint effort between the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, the Drug Enforcement Agency and U.S. Forest Service.
Riverside County Sheriff Sergeant Joe Pemberton estimated between 12,000 to 15,000 plants were removed, a street value of $36 million to $45 million.
Two of the grows were located on the north side of Lake Hemet and one on the south side on Thomas Mountain.
In addition to the plants, about 2 tons of trash or growing supplies — mostly irrigation lines, but also garbage, tents, sleeping bags and other camping supplies as well as fertilizers and pesticides — were removed, said U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Greg Meese.
"The guys who work on these operations don't tend to be very clean out there," he said.
Pemberton said that among the camping equipment, agents found and removed a 12-gauge shotgun.
The Forest Service dedicates funds to eradicating marijuana grows for two reasons, Meese explained: one is for public and USFS employee safety. "If one of our employees or a member of the public stumbles upon one of these illegal grows, it can be very dangerous," he explained.
The other reason is to rehabilitate the environment. The USFS law enforcement agents working on an operation like the one today are focused on removing as much plastic, garbage, chemicals and other hazardous materials as possible, Meese said.
He and his team also collect and bring soil samples to their watershed scientists and a follow-up USFS soil removal and brush restoration project may be ordered later.
The grows were around 10 acres large and about 16 agents worked on the removal.