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IRON COUNTY — As the weather gets warmer, more people are starting to think about the planting season. That goes for marijuana growers as well.
Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower knows the growers are out there, hiding in the mountains, and he's worried hikers will mistakenly walk into the illegal operations.
Gower and Sheriff's Sgt. Jody Edwards hiked into an area Wednesday that was taken down last year, because they were concerned marijuana growers might have moved back into the remote area.
Edwards and Gower were quiet, not wanting to be seen in case there were some growers in the area. “(We’re) making sure we’re not walking back into something they’ve tried to bring back,” the sheriff said.
“(Growers) will spend days and days just climbing up trees, preparing, getting the site prepped.” -Sheriff Mike Gower
An area before marijuana growers start cultivating looks similar to what it looks like after the grow is done. “They will spend days and days just climbing up trees, preparing, getting the site prepped,” Gower explained.
On the way to the site, they spot fresh footprints and an open fence gate leading to the area. Going to a previous site would be easier for growers than clearing a new one.
With guns drawn, they looked for additional signs of activity, anything that would show them growers are back. After a few minutes, though, they determine no one was there. Those prints were likely from a hiker, a landowner, or possibly growers scouting locations.
Either way, Gower is worried innocent hikers might walk into a marijuana grow area and growers will do anything to protect them.
“Each grow is a multimillion dollar crop,” he said.
There are several signs to watch out for at a marijuana farm, including piles of branches that circle the perimeter, hiding what's happening on the inside; trees with branches missing, tree stumps and irrigation pipes and hoses leading to a water source.
- Marijuana plants uniform in height and size, spaced evenly
- Camp area with fertilizer
- Harvested, drying Marijuana buds hanging upside down
- Kitchen area with propane tank & stove
- Potting soil and fertilizer bags
- Gas powered water pump
- Painted pipe valve leading from a water source to the garden
- Rolls of water pipe
“It’s getting to be a problem, a trend we’re concerned about,” Gower said.
About five years ago, Iron County found roughly 7,000 plants in a handful of spots. Last year, 22,000 plants were found in grows throughout the mountains.
"This is our pristine back woods,” Edwards said. “This is where we come to get away from it, and now we have to come into it."
Gower isn't trying to keep people from going into the backcountry and enjoying the outdoors, but he wants people to know this is a problem and figures it's better people know about it than not know.
Chances are, people aren’t going to walk into one, Gower said, but if they do, they should leave immediately, return the way they came and call police.
Those who have a GPS device should take down the coordinates. Otherwise, they should make note of substantial landmarks so they can help law enforcement find it later.
“What I’ve termed it, it’s a public safety nightmare,” Gower said.
In most cases, the growers are wearing camouflage. And in every case Iron County has investigated, the growers were illegally here from Mexico, the sheriff said.