PITKIN COUNTY, Colo. - U.S. Forest Service law enforcement agents have eradicated an illegal marijuana grow operation in Pitkin County with an estimated value of $8.4 million.
Two bow hunters stumbled upon more than 3,000 pot plants in the White River National Forest near the mountain town of Redstone about a week ago, said Chris Strebig, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region. The hunters reported the grow to the Pitkin County Sheriff's Department.
On Friday, Forest Service agents tore out the marijuana plants, dismantled the irrigation system and removed trash and other items left by the growers' makeshift camp, Strebig said. Helicopters helped airlift out the plants and other debris.
No arrests have been made and the case remains under investigation, Strebig said.
The $8.4 million estimated value of the 3,375 marijuana plants is based on the average street value of $2,500 per pound, Strebig said. Each plant is estimated to yield 1 pound of processed marijuana.
Forest Service officials said illegal pot grows on public lands endanger the public, Forest Service employees and damage the environment.
"Growing marijuana on national forest lands will not be tolerated," said 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."
The White River National Forest is America's most visited national forest with 9 million visitors each year. Officials stressed the vast majority of national forests are safe and free of illegal marijuana operations. Yet, since 2009, 34 illegal marijuana grow sites and more than 65,000 marijuana plants have been eradicated from national forests in Colorado, authorities said.
"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," added Fitzwilliams.
"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."
Pot growers' illegal use of pesticides can cause extensive, long-term damage to the forest environment, including the watershed, officials said.
"For example, the supply of public drinking water for hundreds of miles may be impacted because of one marijuana growing site," Strebig said. "Overall, the negative impact of marijuana sites on natural resources is severe. Human waste, trash and the use of pesticides are widespread, 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."
Authorities urged forest visitors to be aware of their surroundings while hiking and camping in secluded areas and to back out if they come across suspicious activities and call Forest Service Law Enforcement at 303-275-5266.