Pot patch near Ruedi was well-established | AspenTimes.com

Pot patch near Ruedi was well-established

The person or people illegally growing pot on public land near Ruedi Reservoir probably figured out they had been discovered and abandoned the site before harvest, according to the head of the White River National Forest.

The growers obviously knew it was getting close to the typical time of the first frost, and yet they walked away from an estimated $6 million to $8 million of crop, said Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.

Law enforcement officers and other workers with the Forest Service pulled 2,630 mature plants out of the ground by hand Wednesday and destroyed the marijuana. There was a rain and snow mix and low temperatures at the site, which is above 8,000 feet.

Fitzwilliams said the site was under surveillance after hunters provided a tip about its whereabouts during the week of Sept. 22. No one was observed visiting the site, and no arrests were made. Upper elevations of the Roaring Fork River Basin dropped below freezing Wednesday night, and freezing was widespread in the valley floor Thursday night. The pot buds likely would have been killed by the frost even if the plants hadn't been yanked from the ground.

“These guys do a lot of eradication all over the country. It was their opinion that (this operation) had been around for a while.”
Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams

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The growing operation was simple but effective, Fitzwilliams said. A "check dam" on a nearby creek created a water source for irrigation. A gravity-fed piping system delivered water to the site. The pot plants, which were up to 6 feet tall, were growing in three or four clumps in natural clearings between subalpine fir and aspen trees in an area smaller than 2 acres, according to Fitzwilliams.

Some of the Forest Service officials who responded were law enforcement officers who specialize in drug operations, Fitzwilliams said.

"These guys do a lot of eradication all over the country," he said. "It was their opinion that (this operation) had been around for a while."

The Forest Service is keeping the exact location under wraps while it finishes its investigation. The site was in Pitkin County, suggesting it was upvalley from the east side of Ruedi Reservoir. Most of the lower valley is in Eagle County.

Forest Service officials said they don't believe there are other grow operations in that immediate vicinity and that it's been thoroughly checked.

But they are not naive enough to think there aren't other illegal grow operations elsewhere in the sprawling, 2.35 million-acre forest, Fitzwilliams said.

In September 2013, an illegal operation was found near Hayes Creek in the Redstone area. Forest Service officials yanked 3,375 marijuana plants out of the ground.

Since 2009, 34 illegal marijuana grow sites and more than 65,000 marijuana plants have been eradicated from national forests in Colorado.

The agency estimates the plants produce an average of 1 pound of marijuana per plant. Using those numbers, the Redstone pot patch would have yielded more than $8 million. The agency estimated the Fryingpan Valley patch would have yielded $6 million to $8 million.

Some observers say the Forest Service estimate of 1 pound of pot per plant is high.

Fitzwilliams said it's clear that the processed material would have yielded millions of dollars. That is a concern, he said, because with that much money at stake, it's unpredictable how the growers would respond if they were present when their garden was discovered. He said there were no booby traps or weapons at the Fryingpan site. A statement released by the agency said items were recovered from a camp, but the agency won't identify the items.

While Colorado voters approved use of recreational marijuana, the federal government still views pot as illegal, the agency noted in a statement.

"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. This includes taking enforcement action for possession, use and cultivation of marijuana as well as natural-resource damage caused by cultivation activities on national forest lands."

Therefore, harvesting the pot and selling it to a legitimate and legal retail operation in Colorado wasn't an option.