Marijuana grow site found near Redstone was worth $8.4 million

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

A 3,375-plant marijuana grow worth $8.4 million discovered on public lands near Redstone this month is unprecedented for the White River National Forest, in terms of size, according to Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.

About a week ago, two archery hunters traveling about 2 miles above Hays Creek Falls in the Crystal River Valley near Redstone discovered an irrigation pipe leading from a creek to the grow site. They alerted the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, which passed the information along to the Forest Service.

Law enforcement officers with the Forest Service monitored the site, and also had to wait out some bad weather, before moving in Friday to remove the plants. No one has been taken into custody, and the case remains under investigation.

Officers estimated that the site had been there three to five years, Fitzwilliams said.

Since 2009, 34 illegal marijuana grow sites and more than 65,000 marijuana plants have been eradicated from national forests in Colorado, according to a press release, but there have only been a handful of sites discovered in the White River. All of those have been of the smaller variety, perhaps a few hundred plants, Fitzwilliams said. The most recent discovery he can remember hearing about was four or five years ago near Eagle.

“This one was significantly larger, so that’s a little concerning to us,” Fitzwilliams said.

 Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
A U.S. Forest Service employee works to eradicate marijuana plants found on federal land near Redstone.

A helicopter was used to airlift the plants, which were removed from the ground, and brought to the South Canyon Landfill near Glenwood. The marijuana was soaked in a solution that will prevent it from ever being consumed, Fitzwilliams said.

“They’re done. They’re absolutely destroyed,” he said.

Some over-the-counter fertilizer was located near the site, but the operation was otherwise free of toxic chemicals, Fitzwilliams said. In this case, the site should be able to revegitate and recover, he said.

That’s not always the case when pot is grown on public lands, with some growers using harsh pesticides and irrigation techniques that can cause extensive resource damage.

“Growing marijuana on national forest lands will not be tolerated,” Fitzwilliams said in the press release. “These cultivation sites cause significant resource damage and endanger visitors who may stumble upon a large amount of marijuana with a large street value.”

The White River National Forest is America’s most visited national forest with 9 million visitors each year.

The estimated $8.4 million value of last week’s busted grow is based on the average value of $2,500 per pound. Each plant is estimated to yield 1 pound of processed material.

Larger pot grows have been found on Forest Service land in Colorado, including two sites totaling 13,000 plants near Pueblo last year, according to the Denver Post. One grow with 14,500 plants was found in the Pike National Forest near Castle Rock in 2009, the Post reported.