Seven Southern Oregon counties have teamed up to fight marijuana growers who move their operations from county to county to avoid detection.

MEDFORD — Seven Southern Oregon counties have teamed up to fight marijuana growers who move their operations from county to county to avoid detection.

Sheriff's departments in Jackson, Josephine, Coos, Curry, Douglas, Klamath and Lake counties formed the multiagency group with a $202,000 federal grant to find, investigate, remove and clean up massive marijuana gardens in forests across the region this summer.

"When one county is active in eradicating plants, then the cartels push into neighboring areas," said Andrea Carlson, a spokeswoman for the Jackson County office.

After a big eradication push in 2007 — yanking out 53,899 plants — Jackson County found no growing operations in 2008, but then saw 30,971 plants removed in 2009. Douglas County found nearly 10,000 pot plants in 2008.

"The big numbers kind of flip-flop," Carlson said.

The multi-agency partnership will enable departments to "get a grasp across the region on a huge amount of land," she said.

Public land across the West but especially in Oregon, California and Washington — among the biggest producers in the nation — increasingly is used for marijuana production, according to federal officials.

The 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment released in February by the U.S. Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center reported that the number of plants removed from public land soared more than 300 percent from 2004 to 2008, primarily at pot gardens of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.

The organizations also bring marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin into the country from Mexico.

They favor public land in the United States because its remoteness can limit detection and it can't be seized or traced back to an owner the way private property can, the report said.

While Southern Oregon hasn't had wildfires linked to growers' camps or conflicts when hikers, hunters or other legitimate forest users come upon gardens, officials worry about the risk.

They also worry that cartels could become more powerful and dangerous, as they reportedly have in California and Arizona.

To demonstrate the damage pot-growing operations leave in the woods, the Jackson County Sheriff's Department offered a tour of a 3-acre garden cleared of more than 2,000 plants in September 2009 when two men were arrested.

Yards of flexible black pipe snake across the hillside to carry water from Indian Creek to the growing site. Also remaining are scattered heaps of trash. Pans, a lawn mower battery, several cell phone chargers, smashed cans and other rubble spill down the hill from a flat area where a tent once sat.

Removing the plants, collecting evidence and cleaning up the trash even from a relatively small garden such as this one, located a short, steep hike from Carberry Creek Road, requires hundreds of man-hours and can cost $10,000, authorities estimated.

That's another big reason why the new collaborative effort is so important, Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson said.

"We don't have the money to fight this," he said.

His department earmarks about $90,000 annually for marijuana enforcement and eradication, focusing on prosecuting a handful of growers each year.

"Working together, we can do this economically and strategically," Gilbertson said.

He said Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters came up with the idea of a multi-agency regional marijuana-eradication team and was able to secure money, based in part on the numbers of plants removed in recent years. The seven counties pulled out more than 55,000 pot plants in 2009, with nearly 31,000 of them coming from Jackson County.

Neighboring counties eagerly signed on, having already seen the success of a regional search and rescue team at handling potentially costly problems that spread across a wide area, Gilbertson said.

"We want to stand together," he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Anita Burke at 541-776-4485 or aburke@mailtribune.com.