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The amount of marijuana ripped from illegal back-country gardens by statewide eradication teams has plummeted for the second year in a row, a reflection of changing growing habits and reduced enforcement.

As California's outdoor marijuana growing season comes to a close, numbers released by state officials shows eradication teams have destroyed about 1.5 million plants, mostly from federal forests. That's less than half of last year's haul.

But in a Santa Rosa neighborhood, authorities Friday were still chopping down towering pot plants following a lengthy investigation into widespread backyard pot cultivation.

The massive sweep of 33 residential marijuana gardens launched this week may be evidence that some cultivation efforts are shifting closer to populated areas.

"They are moving it in and growing much larger plants," said Sonoma County Sheriff's Sgt. Steve Gossett, who runs the agency's narcotics team.

In Mendocino County, deputies tore down more than 400 plants Wednesday from a property in central Covelo in Round Valley. "This was in downtown Covelo," Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said. "We're changing our investigations to go after people moving into neighborhoods."

Authorities across the North Coast this year reported spotting fewer of the massive back-country gardens they used to find in the rugged forests.

Medical marijuana laws may have coaxed some illegal pot cultivation out of the forests and nearer to water access and supplies, investigators said.

State Parks rangers found no pot gardens this year in the Russian River district, where large gardens were discovered in the past in parks such as Austin Creek State Recreation Area north of Guerneville, said Jenny Donovan, public safety superintendent.

Instead, rangers have focused on removing irrigation hoses, trash and other remains from deserted camps.

"I don't know how long this is going to last but we're very thankful for the fact that we haven't seen any active grow sites this year," Donovan said.

For nearly 30 years, the now-defunct state Campaign Against Marijuana Planting sent teams of law enforcement officers aboard helicopters into remote forest pot gardens to chop down plants. Gov. Jerry Brown cut the program from this year's budget, and the teams were restructured under federal leadership.

Now called the Cannabis Eradication and Reclamation Team, or CERT, fewer teams were dispatched in 2012 to rip up plants and were on pace to visit less than half the number of illegal gardens. Only twice did the teams work with Sonoma County law enforcement this year, compared to at least six days of eradication in 2011, Gossett said.

And in Mendocino County, teams assisted local deputies for eight days eradicating plants in the forests. Last year, they spent much of five weeks with the teams, including the three-week Operation Full Court Press.

Statewide, CERT teams destroyed 973,095 plants at 215 locations in 2012 as of Sept. 21, the latest figures available.

Roughly 55 percent of those sites were on Forest Service land, 11 percent on Bureau of Land Management property, 24 percent on private property and the rest on other federal or tribal lands.

The teams conducted their final raids this week, although details on those seizures were not available.

"By last year the end of the season had 2.2 million plants," said Michelle Gregory, with the state Department of Justice. "We're at a little less than half."

Tommy LaNier, director of the National Marijuana Initiative, part of the national High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, said that ripping up plants still is crucial, it's not enough.

Now, they're aiming higher, focused on dismantling drug networks through investigations that use wire tapping and other intelligence gathering tools.

"We'll still use helicopters," LaNier said. "But if you arrest people you have to make sure people go to jail, and for a long time."

Federal authorities ripped an additional 540,000 marijuana plants from 130 locations in California's federal forests as part of Operation Mountain Sweep, which also took place in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. U.S. Attorneys in the Eastern District of California indicted 26 people on various cultivation and weapons charges.

Massive eradication programs, such as last year's Operation Full Court Press in Mendocino County, not only destroyed plants but also removed infrastructure that allowed cultivators to return to the same areas.

"We took out underground water lines, we took out latrines and kitchens that had been on public land for years," Allman said.

Some observers say marijuana gardens still flourish in remote areas. In Humboldt county, Kym Kemp, a writer and radio contributor who follows marijuana issues, said people are talking about how little law enforcement presence they've seen this season.

"It strikes everyone as strange," Kemp said. "We know that there are huge grows on the hills. You can find them on Google Earth."

Casey Rettig, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said she's heard "conflicting reports."

"Some say they are also have back into the mountains," Rettig said.

A down-sized marijuana eradication program may be felt most by private property owners, such as Carol Vellutini, a retired teacher who owns about 300 rugged acres 25 miles northwest of Santa Rosa.

"I can see the writing on the wall: They're going to go out for the big grows and the private property owners will be on their own," said Vellutini.

The pot farmers who had been tapping her springs and camping deep in her property for years appeared to have stayed away this year, but Vellutini said she doesn't let her guard down.

Two years ago, she and a group of armed friends took matters into their own hands by trekking through her woods and destroying a marijuana farm and camp.

Now, she lets three brothers hunt pigs on her land and believes their presence has kept potential pot growers out.

Still, marijuana has followed Vellutini to her home in west Santa Rosa, where she says it's easy to spot the backyard pot gardens.

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