Colorado: U.S. Forest Service dismantles illegal marijuana growing operation near Redstone

Cultivation, possession and use still illegal on federal lands in Colorado

illegal marijuana grow site on White River National Forest Colorado.
A U.S. Forest Service workers uproots marijuana plants from an illegal grow site on the White River National Forest, near Redstone, Colorado. Photo courtesy USFS.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Forest Service law enforcement rangers say they have finished eradicating an illegal marijuana plantation on the White River National Forest near Redstone, Colorado, but they are still actively investigating the site to try and track down the growers.

According to the Forest Service, there were more than 3,300 plants growing at the site. The plants were probably just a few weeks away from being harvested, said agency spokesman Chris Strebig. The Forest Service estimated the value of the plants at about $8.3 million, based on an average value of $2,500 per pound. Each plant is estimated to yield 1 pound of processed marijuana.

Since 2009, 34 illegal marijuana grow sites and more than 65,000 marijuana plants have been eradicated from National Forests in Colorado.

While marijuana possession and use are now legal and regulated under Colorado law, it’s still illegal under federal law. The Forest Service is also concerned about resource damage associated with illegal plantations. In this case, the grow operation  included an illegal water diversion from a nearby stream. Forest Service officials said there were two separate sites close together, each about a half acre in size.

There was evidence that fertilizers were also being used, which also raises concerns about impacts to water quality, according to Strebig.

The site was discovered about a week ago by two archery hunters who reported it to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Department. Crews removed the marijuana plants, dismantled the irrigation system and removed items left in a make-shift camp utilized by the growers. Helicopters assisted by airlifting the plants and other debris associated with the illegal growing site from the area. No arrests have been made and the case remains under investigation.

“Growing marijuana on national forest lands will not be tolerated,” said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, Forest Supervisor for the White River National Forest. “These cultivation sites cause significant resource damage and endanger visitors who may stumble upon a large amount of marijuana with a large street value.”

“Our priority is public and employee safety. We will seek out and remove these grow sites so that hikers, hunters and others who enjoy the White River National Forest won’t be at risk,” Fitzwilliams said.

“Under federal law, marijuana possession, use, or cultivation remains illegal on national forest lands” said U.S. Forest Service special agent in charge, Laura Mark. “The Forest Service remains committed to providing safety to forest visitors and employees and protecting the natural resources. This includes taking enforcement action for possession, use and cultivation of marijuana on national forest lands.”

According to the Forest Service, marijuana cultivation can directly harm the environment. The illegal use of pesticides can cause extensive long-term damage to natural resources. For example, the supply of public drinking water for hundreds of miles may be impacted because of one marijuana growing site.

The negative impact of marijuana sites on natural resourcesincludes human waste and trash. Contamination from sites affects fish and wildlife habitats, and soil erosion is common. In addition, water usage is extreme because each marijuana plant is estimated to require a gallon of water per day — water that is critical to native vegetation, wildlife and public drinking water sources.

Forest visitors are urged to be observant while hiking and camping in secluded areas and to back out and call Forest Service Law Enforcement at (303) 275-5266 if they come across suspicious activities. More detailed information can be obtained from local Forest Service offices.

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