Raid nets 2,700 marijuana plants in illegal growing operation near Redstone | PostIndependent.com

Raid nets 2,700 marijuana plants in illegal growing operation near Redstone

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

For the third time in five years, federal agencies have raided an illegal marijuana growing operation in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest.

Law enforcement officials from multiple agencies began efforts Thursday to eradicate a pot patch in the Crystal Valley approximately 16 miles south of Carbondale, in the Redstone area.

The 5-acre site had 2,700 plants as well as chemicals to deter deer, fertilizer, irrigation pipe, camping gear, trash and tarps, the forest supervisor's office said in a statement.

Unlike the two prior raids, an arrest was made in Thursday's operation.

The raid was conducted by Forest Service law enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Land Management after "significant coordination over the past several months," according to the statement.

The Pitkin County Sheriff's Office received a request from the Forest Service at 8:45 a.m. Thursday to help find a male suspect who ran from the marijuana patch when federal officials raided it, according to Alex Burchetta, director of operations for the Sheriff's Office. Deputies could not find the man. Information was unavailable on whether that was the same subject who was later arrested.

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Burchetta confirmed that the site of the pot patch was in Pitkin County on national forest.

The Gunnison County Sheriff's Office and Colorado Parks and Wildlife also assisted in Thursday's operation, according to the statement.

"The arrest today is another step toward addressing public safety and resource protection issues on the National Forest System lands," Kent Delbon, Special Agent in Charge, said in the statement.

Forest Service officials declined to give the exact location of illegal growing operation because there was still significant work to do to clean up the site. One source said the site was located between Redstone and the turnoff to Marble, on the east side of the Crystal Valley.

An illegal marijuana growing operation in the Crystal Valley was discovered near that vicinity in September 2013. However, that was on the west side of the valley, two miles up Hays Creek from Hays Creek Falls off Highway 133.

The Forest Service and other agencies destroyed an estimated 3,375 plants that were up to five feet high in that operation. The agency estimated the value of the pot, which was close to harvest, exceeded $8 million.

The illegal grow operation was on 2 to 3 acres of forestland, though not all contiguous. It was discovered and reported by two archery hunters.

No arrests were made for the pot patch. In addition to destroying the pot plants, officials dismantled an irrigation system and a makeshift camp at the site.

A year later, in September 2014, an illegal grow operation was discovered in the Fryingpan Valley, east of Ruedi Reservoir and at a higher elevation than the reservoir. Hunters discovered that pot patch as well.

Forest Service law enforcement officers put that site under surveillance, but no one was observed, and no arrests were made. Federal workers destroyed an estimated 2,630 marijuana plants in the Fryingpan Valley operation. The value of the pot was estimated at $6.6 million by the Forest Service. A gravity-fed irrigation system was also dismantled.

If the Forest Service's price estimates are correct, Thursday's eradication destroyed about $6.5 million worth of pot.

In a fourth incident in the White River National Forest, 1,000 pot plants were discovered and destroyed on Cottonwood Pass south of Gypsum in October 2014.

"Illegal marijuana operations cannot be tolerated on National Forest Systems lands," Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said in a statement. "We commend the efforts of law enforcement and partners over the past several months to plan and safely execute the eradication of this site."

Illegal marijuana growing operations are typically ecologically damaging to the forest. Harmful poisons, pesticides and fertilizers are often found at grow sites, the agency said in the statement. These chemicals are fatal to wildlife, can infiltrate the food web, seep into the soil and surrounding watersheds and harm aquatic species or compromise drinking water.

These illegal grows often contain elaborate infrastructures such as piping, water diversions, evidence of long-term human habitation, trash and other items that should not be in the Forest and have the potential to cause environmental degradation.

"It is concerning that these illegal grows are happening more frequently in the forest and near two of our communities," Fitzwilliams said. "We are asking people to remain vigilant and report suspicious activity to local authorities."

Fitzwilliams previously said hunters scouting prior to big-game rifle season or during archery season often find illegal pot operations. Hunters often find the sites because they are hiking off established trails.

The Forest Service statement included an advisory on what forest users should do when they come across a marijuana growing operation. Leave the area as it was found and retrace your steps out. Make observations to report to officials. Report the findings to the Forest Service or local law enforcement.

Don't linger at the site, call attention to yourself or touch anything that looks out of the ordinary.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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