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Illegal grow highlights the problems with pot on public land

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By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff

While the recent discovery of a 2,700 plant illegal cannabis grow on Forest Service land near Redstone is dramatic, it’s far from unprecedented.

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In fact, according to Regional Press Officer Lawrence Lujan, 51 such sites and more than 160,000 plants have been eradicated statewide since 2009, with Colorado ranked third behind California and Kentucky for such seizures in 2016.

It’s a major challenge for the Forest Service on several fronts.

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First, there’s the matter of public safety, with booby traps, armed growers and toxic chemicals par for the course.

“Law enforcement agents are trained to safely navigate most of these hazards, but if forest visitors encounter a grow site, the situation can quickly turn unsafe,” Lujan explained in an email.

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The sites are usually chosen for their remoteness and, despite apparently harsh conditions, plentiful availability of fertile soil and water. Nevertheless, recreationalists are responsible for discovering them about half the time, Lujan said, with aerial detection flights, active investigation and other Forest Service action making up the other half.

A typical illegal grow site consists of camping areas, water diversions, three to 15 plots separated by anywhere from few yards or up to half a mile, and a trail system connecting it all. Some signs of a grow include large quantities of supplies or unusual structures, garden tools, tanks, netting, hoses and, of course, five-lobed plants with serrated leaves.

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If you encounter something of the sort, the Forest Service recommends making some observations, leaving the area the same way you entered and calling 9-1-1. Don’t linger at the site, call attention to yourself, touch anything out of the ordinary.

It takes interdepartmental cooperation with organizations from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Homeland Security Investigations to local law enforcement to investigate and secure a site after it’s discovered. Suspects face federal charges — and one person is, in fact, in federal custody in association with the Redstone grow.

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After that, the challenge switches to cleanup.

“Environmental impacts from growing marijuana are severe,” Lujan wrote. “Growers clear native vegetation before planting and install miles of plastic tubing to transport water from creeks for irrigation, which reduces stream flows for fish and aquatic habitat. Overuse of herbicides and pesticides kill competing vegetation and wildlife. Human waste and trash are widespread. Following harvest, winter rains create severe soil erosion and wash herbicides and pesticides, human waste and trash into streams and rivers.”

“Our goal is to erase the growers’ actions by returning the site to its natural state – in the best ways that we can,” he added. “The environmental damage to the land can take years to mitigate.”

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