The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department purged 17 marijuana growth operations and roughly 60,000 cannabis plants from the county during this year’s “marijuana eradication season.”

In collaboration with agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service and a task force from the Department of Justice, the Sheriff’s Department wiped out nearly $120 million worth of the prohibited crop during its annual operations, which were concentrated from late July until October. According to a press release from the Sheriff’s Department, Los Padres National Forest is home to many of the county’s large-scale cannabis cultivation and suffers from clearcutting, illegal dumping and watershed damage as a result.

Los Padres National Forest Public Affairs Officer Andrew Madsen said the public land — which spans the California coast from Monterey to Ventura — has been used for marijuana harvests with increasing regularity in recent years.

“This last year there were 47 raids that destroyed 340,000 plants in Los Padres; these illegal grows occupied 120 acres of public land,” Madsen said. “This is up from last year when we eradicated 39 growing sites. They are getting smaller to avoid detection, but there are more of them.”

Though no arrests were made during this year’s campaign, Sheriff’s Department Public Information Officer Drew Sugars said the armed individuals who run the illegal growth operations remain threats to public safety.

“The increasingly large and sophisticated marijuana plantations are very often the work of dangerous drug cartels,” Sugars said in a press release. “Forest visitors or residents who happen upon them may be harassed or assaulted.”

According to Madsen, the operations also have a harmful impact on the forest’s natural ecosystem.

“These growers cause massive amounts of environmental degradation when they clear cut space to grow, divert streams, set traps to kill animals and bring in pesticides from Mexico that are not legal in the U.S.,” Madsen said. “These guys also live at the sites, sometimes for years, and do not throw anything out properly; this means we find a lot of garbage and human waste buried at these grow sites.”

Fourth-year environmental studies major Kendyl Bernā said the growth and use of cannabis affects the community in a variety of ways.

“Marijuana can be a great or dangerous thing to both people and the environment, depending on if it is being grown in an environmentally sound manner and used in an appropriate way,” Bernā said. “I mean, there is nothing worse than an 11 year-old [smoking] marijuana grown in an old-growth forest.”

According to Madsen, the forest service lacks the funding and personnel necessary to address the environmental damage without significant aid from volunteers.

“After grows are raided and shut down we have an enormous mess to clean up,” Madsen said. “We cannot consistently get funding to clean up the mess, so overall we are dependent on volunteers. It is just a huge mess — it is a holocaust on the land — and until you actually go out there and look at it you just do not have the perspective of the full extent of the damage.”

Los Padres National Forest visitors are encouraged to report criminal activity, including new trails, individuals in possession of irrigation tubing and decreased creek flows, to the Sheriff’s Department at (805) 681-4175 or