A helicopter fighting the Waldo Canyon Fire earlier this summer spotted a 22-acre illegal marijuana grow in the Pike National Forest, authorities said.
The pot grow, which contained about 7,500 plants and was estimated to have a $15 million street value, was cited by federal officials as an example of the rampant outlaw pot plantations inflicting damage on Colorado's scenic wilderness.
"Marijuana trafficking organizations seek to turn our nations parks and public lands into their own drug havens," Michele M. Leonhart, head of the U.S Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a news release.
The DEA-led Operation Mountain Sweep is a "concerted effort to reclaim these wild and beautiful areas, and protect them from further destruction and exploitation," Leonhart said.
The operation is a campaign by federal prosecutors, the DEA, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and local law enforcement to target outdoor marijuana grows across the West.
Some of the Waldo Canyon pot grow was destroyed in the wildfire that raged from late June into early July, officials said. The rest were removed by Forest Service law enforcement officers.
The so-called Sand Gulch grow, which was hidden on a mountainside above the small community of Cascade-Chipita Park, had its own pot-grower encampment, dams and irrigation system, officials said.
Photographs released by the U.S. Forest Service showed marijuana plants growing on the mountainside near fire-scorched slopes and the remnants of the grower encampment, including a burned tarp shelter strung between trees, a charred propane tank and cooking gear.
John F. Walsh, the U.S. Attorney for Colorado, said it was just one of 16 large marijuana grows raided in Colorado national forests since 2009.
In addition to the Sand Gulch grow, the DEA has seized more than 1,400 plants, along with 103 pounds of marijuana and $354,325 in cash, connected to marijuana grown on public lands in Colorado this year.
Just last week, the Pueblo County Sheriff, with the support of the U.S. Forest Service, removed more than 13,000 marijuana plants growing on private land within the San Isabel National Forest southwest of Pueblo.
Illegal marijuana grows cause substantial environmental damage that lingers long after the illegal crop is harvested, officials said.
Pot growers scar pristine public lands by cutting down natural vegetation and trees to provide space and sunlight for their pot crop. They also divert streams from their natural paths to irrigate the land in violation of the law.
They introduce chemicals to fertilize the crops and spread rat poison and insecticides indiscriminately, harming the public lands, wildlife and waterways, officials said. Trash and equipment litter abandoned sites.
"Use of the public lands for marijuana cultivation is an environmental crime as well as a violation of our nations anti-drug laws," Walsh said. "Those who engage in this activity are endangering public safety and harming Colorados treasured wild lands and high country, and will be apprehended and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
U.S Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said his agency "is aggressively and decisively combating this issue because public safety is our top priority. ...While only a fraction of the National Forest System is affected by this illegal activity, our intent is to provide for the safety of all visitors on our lands.
Authorities urged members of the public who come across marijuana grown on public land to contact the local police or sheriff, or the relevant federal agency, including the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or the National Park Service.
People can also report marijuana grows on Forest Service lands to this tipline: 303-275-5266.
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