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EARLY ONE MORNING in August 2005, a small team of game wardens and deputies climbed through coyote brush and manzanita in the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve outside San Jose, California, searching for an illegal pot farm. As they crested a ridge, they discovered densely planted rows of cannabis stalks. Suddenly, a high-powered rifle cracked and an officer fell to the ground, shot through both legs. Seconds later, another deputy shot and killed a man wielding a sawed-off shotgun. "It was literally like a jungle firefight," recalls warden John Nores, who fired at the other shooter before he escaped into the woods. Left behind in a meadow just minutes from the heart of Silicon Valley were 22,000 marijuana plants worth some $88 million.
Over the past decade, marijuana patches known as "grows" or "gardens" have sprung up on public lands across the West, including a third of California's national parks and nearly 40 percent of all national forests. Where hippies once grew just enough weed to peace out, traffickers now cultivate more than 100,000 plants at a time on 30-acre terraces irrigated by plastic pipe, laced with illegal pesticides, and guarded by men with MAC-10s and Uzis. Grows have turned up everywhere from the deepest backcountry to the edges of suburban subdivisions. Farming pot on public land can be more profitable than smuggling it across the increasingly militarized border. The 3.1 million pot plants seized in national forests in the year prior to last September had an estimated street value of $12.4 billion.