The national forest marijuana problem is not new, but it is growing, becoming more sophisticated and more dangerous with the cartel involvement. Workers in these plantations are armed with automatic assault rifles.

In recent years, marijuana growing has flourished in California’s rich agricultural valleys. This has been precipitated by California’s new medical marijuana laws. Illegal drug dealers are operating under the guise of growing medical marijuana. One large-scale growing operation raided by county sheriff’s officials just east of Fresno was in an area of small vegetable farms. On the fence surrounding the pot farm letters were posted professing that it was a medical marijuana operation. Many of the letters were duplicated and tacked on the fence of the raided farm. Sheriff’s deputies had traced the marijuana grown there to illegal drug sales on the East Coast.

Horne said Asian gangs are leasing agricultural land for these marijuana operations.

Horne cited official statements that only 15 percent of marijuana growing operations on federal land are detected and destroyed each year. He disagrees with that, at least in his county, where he said his task force takes out 50 percent to 70 percent of the operations.

What he did not dispute is the size of the problem statewide. Horne said it has been estimated that there are 71,000 acres of marijuana under cultivation each year in California. That represents 121 square miles or an area equivalent to the size of Sacramento.

Horne said they are so plentiful, it is common for hunters and hikers to stumble across marijuana plantations.

These operations have also been linked to wildlife deaths from drinking polluted water and several have been linked to starting forest fires.