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Fresh footprints leading into the dense brush. A broken branch. A piece of garbage catching the light.

They could be signs of wild pigs and the hunters that pursue them.

But many landowners in rugged hills of Sonoma and Mendocino counties know better. They know those may very well be signs of hidden marijuana gardens and the threats that drug's cultivators pose to people on the land.

One retired teacher is so angry about the dammed streams, booby-trapped trails and garbage dumped in the woods by marijuana growers that on Sunday she risked confrontation to hunt down a pot garden she suspected was on her land.

"I have a hot Italian temper," said Carol Vellutini, 68, of Santa Rosa. "I'm furious when people dump garbage in pristine places."

On Sunday, Vellutini led a group of friends armed with shotguns into her rugged and remote property that spans 300 acres about 25 miles northwest of Santa Rosa.

The group trudged across steep hillsides, through thick brush and over ridges as they searched for signs of the men and plants Vellutini believed were up there.

It was not without risk. Since June, three men have been shot and killed by drug agents during raids of illegal marijuana gardens in Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties. In all cases, authorities said the men threatened officers with weapons.

Crews with the state's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP, have destroyed <NO1><NO>287,868 marijuana plants in Sonoma County since June.

Nearly half of those were on private land, according to a Department of Justice report. CAMP crews have made no arrests so far this season.

The number of plants destroyed by local and state efforts has grown each year. But the illegal use of public and private lands appears to have grown as well. Vellutini echoes the views of many critics when she questions whether eradicating the plants is enough.

"If they'd gone in and taken the men and not just the plants, we wouldn't be having this problem," she said.

A sheriff's helicopter crew had flown over the area a few weeks ago on a regular aerial search for signs of marijuana, but hadn't spotted the bright green plants near her land, said Sgt. Chris Bertoli, who runs the sheriff's narcotics unit.

Three hours into Sunday's sweaty, steep hike, Vellutini and her friends found out why. Backwoods marijuana growers have made an art form out of camouflaging their efforts.

A cleared deer trail through thick brush led onto a worn foot path, which in turn led to the edge of a redwood grove. There they found a rudimentary toilet that showed evidence of recent use.

The trail then dipped down into a ravine where a makeshift kitchen had been set up in a ring of redwoods.

"You bullet proof?" Torino Palomino, 46, asked Vellutini as she charged down to the kitchen.

"No, I'm just a little grandmother with no gun," she said.

The kitchen, sheltered by by tarps hung from the trees, was stocked: fresh eggs, onions, tortillas, canned tuna, spices, hot sauce. It was outfitted with cutting boards, a cast-iron skillet, utensils, a propane tank and camp stove.

"Let's tear it down," Vellutini said. And that's what they did.

A few feet from the kitchen, the interlopers had stashed sleeping pads and blankets on a green tarp. A black hose led to a wash area. Piles of empty fertilizer jugs were strewn on the bank of a seeping ravine.

"I wish I could bring this stuff to the sheriff's Guerneville substation, dump it at their door and say &‘thanks for being so helpful,'" Vellutini said as she picked up a fertilizer container.

"The question is, where's the pot?" Boz Williams, 66, said.

Luis Palomino, 36, Torino Palomino's brother, scouted a trail leading up to a sunny manzanita grove on a nearby ridge. He whistled and soon reappeared at the camp.

"Found it," he said.

Over the ridge, small but pungent marijuana plants grew nestled under the manzanita brush that covered the hillside.

Williams pulled a six-inch plant's thick root out of the dry earth.

"Smells like weed," he said.

The hundreds of plants ranging from 4 to 8 inches tall were scattered in single-plant plots. The brush shielded the plants from view but allowed sunlight to reach them. The garden stretched across the hillside at least 300 yards, probably more.

A series of black irrigation hoses were rigged up to 50-gallon drums camouflaged with brown and green spray paint.

"This would be hard to see from the air," said Carl Inglin, 61, a retired computer programmer from Santa Rosa who last year helped Vellutini pack out garbage from a marijuana garden on her property that CAMP crews had destroyed.

On Sunday, the group poured out jars of sugar and mayonnaise, trampled on the tortillas and dumped whole flats of eggs into a pile. They'd come back for the trash in the winter, she said, but packed up the tools, tarps and hoses they could fit in their packs.

Vellutini tossed the sleeping pads into the damp ravine, a gesture she hoped would send the message to the growers to leave for good.

"I want to take this garbage to a board of supervisors meeting and dump it on their tables," Vallutini said. "I want people to call the board of supervisors and demand they do something."

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