U.S. Forest Service agents on Friday busted an illegal pot plantation on federal land about 2 miles above Hay Creek Falls south of Redstone.
It remains unclear how many plants were destroyed in the bust, but a bow hunter who discovered the clandestine pot farm several weeks ago and reported it to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office said there were anywhere between 250 and 500 plants growing there, according to sheriff’s deputy Jesse Steindler.
“The reporting party first stumbled onto an irrigation pipe in that area,” Steindler said. “He reported seeing about one plant about every 3 feet in an area of about 100-by-100 feet. He said the plants were about chest high. … I don’t think the guy who saw the site stuck around very long.”
The Forest Service did not release any information about the bust on Friday, though an agency employee at the Carbondale office of the Sopris Ranger District described it generically as a “vegetation management operation.”
Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy Grant Jahnke, who was present at the incident command center in Carbondale on Friday morning, said he had heard that there could have been as many as 2,500 plants on the site. To his knowledge, Jahnke said that no arrests have yet been made in connection with the bust.
The financial value of the destroyed cannabis crop remains murky, but an Aspen-based medical marijuana grower said Friday that the average pot plant should yield about 1.25 pounds of dry marijuana on average. A pound of pot could fetch anywhere from $1,200 in Colorado’s medical market to $2,500 on the street or in another state.
By those metrics, 500 healthy pot plants could be worth at least $750,000 if sold on the medical market, and up to $1.5 million if sold illegally.
The hunter who stumbled upon the pot farm mentioned that there was a tent set up nearby, according to Steindler, suggesting that the grower could have lived on the remote site during the growing season.
In the fall, when water levels are low, Hay Creek Falls is a popular hiking trail in the Redstone area, but Steindler said the hidden cannabis grove is well off the beaten path, making it unlikely that a casual hiker could discover it.
“This area is not along the traditional path, you have to stumble upon it,” he said.
When the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office learned about the grow site several weeks ago, deputies obtained the site’s rough GPS coordinates and notified the Forest Service.
“[The Forest Service] contacted us yesterday and said they were coming up into the area,” said Alex Burchetta, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, even though the cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes has been legal in Colorado since the year 2000 and recreational marijuana was legalized here in 2012 with the passage of Amendment 64.
In an Aug. 29 memo announcing that the federal government would not interfere with the implementation of marijuana legalization laws in Colorado or Washington, Deputy Attorney General James Cole reiterated his agency’s priorities with respect to marijuana. “Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property” was one of those.
Exactly when the last illegal pot farm was discovered in the national forest around Aspen is unclear. Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor for the White River National Forest, said his agency hadn’t made any local pot busts during his four-year tenure.
“[This one] is certainly a little surprising, at that high elevation,” he said. I really don’t know if this is anything out of the ordinary.”
Fitzwilliams said he didn’t know how the contraband cannabis confiscated Friday would be destroyed. After pulling the plants, federal agents sometimes burn them on site, or transport them elsewhere to be thrown away.
“I’ve seen pictures of them burned and thrown away,” Fitzwilliams said. “Each one is different, and I’m not sure what they’ll do in this case.”