A multi-agency police team raided a massive marijuana-growing operation in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest west of Selma on Tuesday, pulling thousands of plants, lifting them out by helicopter and hauling them away in dump trucks.

A multi-agency police team raided a massive marijuana-growing operation in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest west of Selma on Tuesday, pulling thousands of plants, lifting them out by helicopter and hauling them away in dump trucks.

The eradication effort was the biggest so far this summer for the new Southern Oregon Multi-Agency Marijuana Eradication and Reclamation team, also known as SOMMER, Jackson County sheriff's spokeswoman Andrea Carlson said.

The team works across Jackson, Josephine, Coos, Curry, Douglas, Klamath and Lake counties to stop large-scale marijuana gardens suspected of being linked to Mexican cartels. Tuesday's mission was the team's seventh and officials said eradication crews potentially will stay busy into October.

"We've got targets lined up through the season," Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson said.

Tuesday's target was a vast complex of gardens covering at least five acres on steep slopes burned in 2002's Biscuit fire.

Tactical teams from Jackson and Siskiyou counties and the U.S. Forest Service moved in to secure the first five gardens, each with scattered growing areas, at about 7 a.m. Tuesday. Crews reached at least two additional gardens during the day.

"They told us to expect to be here from dawn to dusk," said one search and rescue volunteer who helps cut down and uproot the plants in part because she loves shuttling into the sites by helicopter. Investigators and eradication teams asked not to be publicly identified for safety reasons.

"This is definitely a cartel operation," Gilbertson said, explaining that the massive size of the gardens and information collected by investigators led authorities to that conclusion.

He said cartels select remote areas with adequate water and sunlight and limited law enforcement.

"We don't have a lot of resources, so it's good that the seven counties are working together," Gilbertson said. "Together we can do a better job."

Joining in the attack on Tuesday were officers and volunteers from Jackson, Josephine and Siskiyou counties, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Guard.

While SWAT teams hiked in to secure the gardens Tuesday morning, they could overhear radio conversations of men fleeing, Carlson said. They also found scattered belongings and cut marijuana on rugged trails leading between remote forest roads and the growing site, but didn't find anyone.

Along the slopes near a now-marshy seasonal stream, thousands of pot plants grew. A bright emerald green beneath scorched snags, they ranged from waist-high specimens that were regrowing after previously having the tops cut off to plants that stretched overhead — 9, 10, even 12 feet tall. A patch of giant zucchini grew at one end of the grove of marijuana plants, while under a cluster of young oak trees, a tarp covered a makeshift kitchen stocked with bags of instant masa, dried chilies and beans. Tortillas and a deck of playing cards were scattered across the hard-packed dirt.

The worn kitchen and pot plantings unfolding down the slope indicated that the site likely had been used for several years, officials said.

Crews yanked up small plants and lopped off larger ones at the ground, binding them with duct tape into bundles of 50 plants. As the taped bundles piled up, awaiting an airlift back to dump trucks parked along the Illinois River, officials estimated one large central garden could have 5,000 to 10,000 plants. At least one garden was larger, several were a little smaller and one had racks of dried plants ready to be packed out, officials said.

Authorities said the marijuana grown in Southern Oregon's forests is usually destined for markets to the east, where it can fetch between $3,000 and $6,000 a pound. Each mature plant can produce about a pound or a little more.

Despite a hit to the cartels' bottom line potentially measured in millions of dollars, Gilbertson said he's not sure the eradication efforts will stop the international drug-trafficking operations.

"It's just a little poke in the eye to them," he said. "They will migrate to somewhere with less heat."

However, he doesn't see a clear alternative. A push toward legalization likely would create a massive new bureaucracy that still couldn't control the drug trade.

Carlson said SOMMER will continue to seek additional funding to help push the cartels out of the area.

On the ground, crews are willing to keep pulling the plants, collecting evidence and hoping to prosecute the growers.

"I grew up in the woods," said one search-and-rescue volunteer who has joined the eradication effort for the past two years. "I take issue with the cartels and this needs to be taken care of."

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 541-776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.