Big Pot Grow in Routt National Forest an Environmental Hazard, Feds Say

Summit Lake, near Buffalo Pass. Additional images below.
Summit Lake, near Buffalo Pass. Additional images below.
Photo by Veronica Orwan courtesy of the USDA Forest Service

The days of federal marijuana arrests are not over in Colorado.

Alfonso Rodriguez-Vazquez and Nestor Fabian Sinaloa-Sinaloa, both Mexican nationals, found that out the hard way. They were busted in relation to a big pot grow in Routt National Forest.

However, the announcement about the case from the U.S. Attorney's Office demonstrates that the changes in attitude toward cannabis in this state and beyond have made at least a modest impact on the feds.

Instead of boasting about protecting the citizenry from the deadly scourge of ganja, as they might have done during the height of the War on Drugs era, prosecutors and law enforcers instead justify the action by portraying the grow as an environmental hazard.

The grow covered approximately three-quarters of an acre in the Buffalo Pass area, not far from Steamboat Springs.

Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium fasciculatum), a wildflower common in the Buffalo Pass area.
Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium fasciculatum), a wildflower common in the Buffalo Pass area.
Photo by Katie Heard courtesy of the USDA Forest Service

Here's how the USDA Forest Service describes Buffalo Pass on a website devoted to the location:

This approximately 15-mile stretch of scenic dirt road crosses the diverse habitats within the Park Range of the Rocky Mountains. It rises from sagebrush and gamble oak habitat to lodgepole pine, quaking aspen, and spruce-fir dominated forests. The elevation ranges from 6,700 feet in Steamboat Springs to 10,400 feet at Summit Lake Camp Ground. This road offers spectacular views of the Yampa and North Park valleys below, multiple alpine lakes within walking distance, access to the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, multiple disperse camping sites and Summit Lake Campground with restroom facilities. Additionally, there are numerous hiking, horseback and motorized vehicle trails to suite a range of outdoor activity needs....

Because of the high elevation of Buffalo Pass, the viewing season for wildflowers is compressed, and they are best seen from late June to early August. Common species found along this area include: common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), orange agoseris (Agoseris aurantiaca), heart leafed arnica (Arnica cordifolia), marsh marigold (Caltha leptosepala), paintbrush (Castilleja species), fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), purple marshlocks (Comarum palustre), fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus), glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflorum), strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), geranium (Geranium species), golden-aster (Heterotheca villosa), bluebells (Mertensia species), Rocky Mountain pond-lily (Nuphar lutea ssp. polysepala), elephanthead (Pedicularis groenlandica), lousewort (Pedicularis racemosa), Whipple’s penstemon (Penstemon whippleanus), Jacob’s-ladder (Polemonium pulcherrimum), buttercups (Ranunculus species), groundsel (Senecio species), phlox ( Phlox species), false hellebore (Veratrum species), Rabbit Ears gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata ssp. weberi), and Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium fasciculatum).

Regarding the grow, a tipster who noticed "suspicious activity" contacted the U.S. Forest Service, which removed approximately 1,000 plants, as well as camping gear and assorted trash, in addition to busting Rodriguez-Vazquez and Sinaloa-Sinaloa. They're next due in court on Thursday, September 3; they've been charged with the manufacture of marijuana and could receive a sentence of between five and forty years in federal prison and a $5 million fine apiece.

A campsite along National Forest System Road 60 in the Buffalo Pass area.
A campsite along National Forest System Road 60 in the Buffalo Pass area.
Photo by Veronica Orwan courtesy of the USDA Forest Service

In a comment about the action, U.S. Attorney John Walsh issued a statement with a decidedly ecological tone. “Abusing the lands that belong to all citizens in order to make drug money is going to get you prosecuted," he said.

Added 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."

And then there's this passage:

According to the Forest Service, illegal marijuana cultivation poses a public safety risk and also directly harms the environment. The illegal use of pesticides can cause extensive long-term damage to natural resources. For example, the supply of public drinking water for hundreds of miles may be impacted because of one marijuana growing site. 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.

It's premature to suggest that this spin offers indicates that the federal government may soon stop demonizing marijuana itself, as opposed to the damage that can be done by unregulated growers. But the language is certain different than it might have been after a drug bust twenty, or even ten, years ago.



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