Illegal pot grows destroying Colorado's National Forests, U.S. Forest Service says

U.S. Forest Service battling to protect our land

PUEBLO, Colo. - The United States Forest Service says illegal marijuana grows are destroying Colorado's forests.

"It makes all of us feel angry because we're supposed to be the caretakers of this land," explained Heiko Bornhoff a Forest Service Assistant Special Agent.

Since 2008, The Forest Service says it has tracked down 36 illegal pot growing operations hidden in the tree's on federal land in Colorado, with agents seizing more than 100,000 marijuana plants.

STORY ARCHIVE:

An inside look at a large-scale illegal pot grow in the San Isabel National Forest exposed how these operations are leaving long-term damage to not only the land, but the entire eco-system.

"This site will be impacted for several years and maybe longer," said Chris Strebig a United States Forest Service Spokesman.

A member of the Forest Service holds a plant he pulled from the ground at an illegal grow site.

The Forest Service discovered the sophisticated grow site in 2012, 40 miles southwest of Pueblo, near the town of Rye.

Two years later, Strebig says the destruction remains.

"There are impacts to cutting down trees and then camouflaging the trunks so no one can see it as they fly over," he said.

The abandoned grow operation is located less than a mile from the main road and near a public hiking trail.

"This is a bit closer than the one's we've seen," said Bornhoff.

"We're talking big money here?" asked 7NEWS Reporter Jennifer Kovaleski

"Yeah, they generate millions of dollars," said Bornhoff.

The Forest Service says it confiscated more than 7,000 pot plants from the site. At one time, agents estimate it was a $20 million operation.

"You have the trees de-limbed about thirty feet up to allow the sunlight coming in," Bornhoff showed Kovaleski. "Each plant also has its own irrigation line going to it."

At the grow site, you can see what's left of a high-tech irrigation system using plastic piping to divert water from a dam up the hill.

"This water source flows through this draw right here and goes right down into the lake below," Bornhoff explained while he showed Kovaleski where the water flows.

It means when the grow op was occupied; pesticides and marijuana runoff were likely flowing directly into our water sources down the mountain.

"Some of the stuff is hazardous material, it can be things that kill animals and kill plants," said Strebig.

Left over pesticides, fertilizers, abandoned work boots, and trash still occupy the deserted illegal grow site.

"A garbage dump that the Forest Service will now have to clean up," said Strebig. "It's a make-shift living space is what it is."

Strebig says people were living here 24/7, protecting their illegal cash crop.

"It concerns us a lot, the potential safety issues of people protecting a multi-million dollar investment, not far from a hiking trail," he said.

There were no arrests. The site is still under investigation, but federal agents believe a drug trafficking organization is likely responsible for the illegal pot grow.

For the Forest Service, it's an on-going battle to find and top stop illegal pot grows hidden within Colorado's 22 million acres of treasured national forest.

"When I look at this site it's terrible, it does not look like a national forest I've ever seen," said Strebig.

Watch Jennifer Kovaleski's report on 7NEWS at 10 p.m.

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