WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration has launched a campaign to eradicate thousands of acres of illegal marijuana plants from California's national forests, the U.S. Forest Service said on Thursday.
Officials complain that crime rings have planted around 6,000 acres of secret marijuana plantations in federal forests and often send armed squatters to set up camp and tend the lucrative crop.
In one recent three-week period, officials pulled up more than 280,000 marijuana plants, worth about $1.8 billion, largely in California's Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
Sixteen people were arrested and 10 weapons were seized in those operations.
Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department undersecretary whose portfolio includes the Forest Service, announced the eradication campaign in Fresno, California, before the fall marijuana harvest.
Officials say the burgeoning crop not only breeds organized crime, but attracts traffickers from other countries who damage forests by diverting water and thinning brush and trees.
"Everyone has come together to realize this is a serious problem right now," said Janice Gauthier, a Forest Service spokeswoman in California.
The new campaign will seek and destroy marijuana plants in national forests and step up clearing of plantation sites of fertilizer or chemicals.