SALT LAKE CITY -- Marijuana-growing operations on public lands in Utah have become a significant problem and pose a threat to public safety, say state and federal law enforcement agencies.
The operations increased 27 percent in 2010 from the previous year as officials seized 106,573 pot plants across the state, authorities said Thursday.
Law enforcement officials expect marijuana farms in Southern Utah to remain a problem during the upcoming season, especially in backcountry areas.
"The operations of marijuana growth and the cultivation sites have become an increasing problem in Utah," said Carlie Christensen, U.S. Attorney for Utah. "We will continue to seek stiff federal penalties for anyone who is found guilty of operating a marijuana-growing operation."
The 24 arrests made during the 2010 growing season -- a 140 percent increase from 2009 -- reflect a newfound boldness among growers, who are now planting more marijuana on public land near trails and access roads across the country, Christensen said.
The 2010 seizures in Utah netted more than $215 million worth of the drug.
Christensen said it is believed many of the operations are being run by Mexican drug cartels to eliminate the risk of cross-border smuggling.
"These operations are not just a threat to the law, but also a threat to the community," said Washington Country Sheriff Cory Pulsipher.
"They are growing millions of dollars' worth of marijuana, so they're using whatever means to protect it, including weapons, which we've recovered from several sites."
Last July, six teen girls were swimming in a canyon in Southern Utah's Garfield County when they were approached by a man wielding a loaded gun, said Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins.
He said the girls called for help after the man fled. He was later arrested by police near a marijuana farm with about 6,000 plants.
"If the public come across suspicious characters in areas with few people or signs of these farms, such as black tubes for irrigation, they should leave the premise immediately and report the incident to law enforcement officials," Perkins said.
In June, law enforcement officials seized more than 8,000 plants in a canyon north of the rural town of Pine Valley in Washington County. Six people were arrested and later convicted, each receiving sentences of up to four years in federal prison.
"It's not just the plants themselves, but it's also the damage they do to public lands," Pulsipher said. "We also spend a lot of time dealing with trash, fertilizers and chemicals that are left behind by the farmers."