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Ten-Acre Pot Farm Damaged Sequoia Forest

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - Marijuana growers damaged pristine land near The Needles formation in Sequoia National Forest, and four men face up to 30 years in prison if convicted of tending it.

The four men told federal agents they were among 10 to 13 people working on the site, and were paid $200 a day to trim and manicure the marijuana buds with scissors.

Charged with conspiracy to cultivate marijuana on public land, cultivating and possessing it with intent to distribute, and damaging public land and natural resources are Armando Martinez-Tinoco, 36; his brother, Juan Carlos Martinez-Tinoco, 41; Luis Enrique Flores, 23, all of Mexico; and Ivan De Jesus Jimenez, 30, of La Puente, Calif. A federal grand jury returned the indictment on Thursday.

U.S. Forest Service Agent Brian Adams spotted something suspicious on Oct. 14 near The Needles, massive granite rock formations in Sequoia National Forest. He returned the next days with another agent and they found the marijuana farm and saw men running away, Adams said in an affidavit.

The suspects had a head start and escaped. The agents found tents, sleeping bags, clothing and other supplies, and six or more plots of marijuana, according to two affidavits .

Adams learned the next day that three "wet and dirty" Hispanic men had been given a ride to a nearby market, where they bought new clothes and other items. He tracked them to a motel.

Defendant Luis Flores "said he was hired by a man who told him he would be doing construction and was taken to the mountains and told to hike up a trail. He said when he arrived at the grow site he realized what he was hired to do and got scared, but he did what he was told to do," Adams said in an affidavit.

The fourth suspect was arrested the next day.

The pot farm covered 10 acres in the Giant Sequoia National Monument and caused significant environment damage.

"Many of the native plants and trees were cut and trimmed to make room for the marijuana plants. Water was diverted from a spring that supports wildlife. Pesticides, including illegal zinc phosphide (fosforo de zinc) smuggled to the United States from Mexico, were found at the site, in addition to 50-pound bags of high nitrogen fertilizer," Adams said.

Large piles of trash had been stuffed under boulders and buried along the stream. "The water source for the grow site eventually drains into the Upper Kern River, which contains the unique Kern River rainbow trout," Adams said.

The men were to be arraigned Monday in Fresno. The drug offenses are punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison and a $1 million fine, the environmental crime by 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

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