Detective Eric Anderson has been in on plenty of busts of marijuana-growing operations in Klickitat County, Wash., but none of them prepared him for what he, along with state and federal agents, found in a remote ravine near the White Salmon River.
It wasn't just the size of the operation -- some 6,000 plants on three separate plots within a 2-square-mile area -- but that the people who worked there had built shacks where they slept and cooked, had lugged in workout equipment and built an elaborate, sophisticated irrigation and misting system to keep the plants growing and blossoming.
"It was really well-established," Anderson said. "It was almost like a miniature Gilligan's Island. They took the time to make a comfortable, livable site. I was highly impressed with everything from the amount of labor to the engineering in that water system that was put in."
The massive operation that agents found in the forest on state land in Klickitat County, producing a crop estimated to have a street value of as much as $9 million, is part of a trend that law enforcement officials from Washington to South Carolina have seen growing over the last half dozen years.
The overall amount of marijuana under cultivation that is seized each year has been holding steady, according to various measures, but how it is being found has undergone a radical change.
They describe it as a turn to a more corporate approach to growing marijuana in the United States, which until recently had mostly been pursued by individuals who tended their plants themselves in their basements, barns, closets or back yards.
These corporate growers likely never go near the plants, which law enforcement officials say are often tended by immigrants who live on-site to keep out animals that might do damage to the plants or hunters or hikers who might steal the harvest or report back to authorities.
The plantation in Klickitat County was discovered by police flying over the area searching for patches of the distinctive green of marijuana leaves, but once it was identified, drug enforcement agents had to decide how to proceed. The garden they saw from the air was in a ravine, and Anderson said when he was flown over it, even when it was pointed out it was hard to see.
"It was all we could do to hike in after we spotted it from the air," he added.
By the time police had gotten there, everybody working the gardens was gone.
Though there have been few arrests of people who were working in the gardens in any of the seizures, police say they believe that in many cases the financing and organization for the operations is coming from Mexico, with drug lords who have trafficked in marijuana for years deciding it is more profitable to move their growing operations rather than continuing to try to smuggle pot into the United States.
This belief is based in part on evidence found at the various large-scale pot farms that have been found in several states across the country -- though most of the so-called corporate sites have been found in eastern California, in remote areas of the national parks there.
In Tulare County, Calif., more than 18,000 plants, with an estimated street value of $72 million, were seized in late August in several gardens in remote areas of Sequoia National Park, and in September county and state police made four more seizures of roughly 4,000 plants each.
"We're having a huge marijuana year," Tulare County County Sheriff's Department Lt. Donna Perry said.