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Drug Traffickers Set up Shop on Nevada Public Lands | News

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Drug Traffickers Set up Shop on Nevada Public Lands
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LAS VEGAS -- Drug traffickers are setting up camp on Nevada's public lands, growing marijuana, and destroying the environment in the process.

Law enforcement officials say the number of outdoor pot farms in Nevada has tripled in recent years. Details are now emerging about a once-secret, seven-state crackdown, called Operation Mountain Sweep.

Federal officials say large grow operations on public lands have increased at an alarming rate. Drug traffickers, often carrying high-powered assault rifles, are hiding out on federal lands and making millions harvesting marijuana.

"These are organized groups who employ a lot of people to go out there and to cultivate this marijuana, and it's intolerable," Metro Assistant Sheriff Greg McCurdy.

SLIDESHOW: Marijuana Bust

Local and federal law enforcement officers are venturing into the most remote regions of southern Nevada to eradicate the outdoor marijuana grows, but the pot pioneers press on, hiding out in hard-to-reach places.

"We've had a difficult time. These people know the mountain that they're up on and they're tough to catch," said Kent Bitsko, executive director of Nevada High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

The 8 News NOW I-Team first exposed the dangers of outdoor marijuana grows on places like Mount Charleston.

Operation Mountain Sweep has netted more than 30,000 pot plants from Nevada public lands since July 1.

"Every grow we come across in Nevada is being fed by the illegal diversion of water, a very scarce resource here in Nevada," said Paul Rozario, assistant special agent in charge, DEA Nevada.

8 News NOW obtained key evidence, showing how pristine lands are in danger of going up in smoke, thanks to stoner suspects. Trees are cut down to allow sunlight, irrigation systems added to divert streams, and dangerous chemicals to grow the pot are left to poison the environment. The drug traffickers also have another bad habit, littering, and could pose a threat to forest workers, hikers or campers.

"If they stumble upon one of these marijuana grow sites, they're likely to find some huge trouble," U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden said.

This is a drug war that's relatively new to Nevada, but officials vow to climb mountains to stop the drug dealers. Investigators admit it's tough to catch the criminals because they have plenty of time to get a head start and leave when they see lawmen hiking up the mountains. Authorities say when one of the growers is caught, the federal penalties are tough, reaching up to life in prison and a $10 million fine.

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