08/22/2012 10:40 am ET Updated Aug 22, 2012

Large Pot Grow Operation Discovered During Waldo Canyon Fire Battle, Feds Say

Back in June, while firefighters were battling the Waldo Canyon Fire, the most destructive wildfire in state history, they discovered a sophisticated and large-scale marijuana grow operation in Pike National Forest.

The grow operation, covering approximately 22-acres and containing around 7,500 plants, was hidden on a mountainside above the Cascade-Chipita Park community west of Colorado Springs. The large grow site had a living area for pot growers, dams and irrigation systems, CBS4 reports. The estimated street value of the pot discovered was $15 million.

Some of the pot plants had burned in the fire which ultimately consumed 18,247 acres, killed two people, destroyed nearly 350 homes and forced the evacuation of 32,000 people.

The details of the grow operation discovered near the Waldo Canyon wildfire area came with the announcement that Colorado officials are participating in a multi-agency, multi-state effort to crackdown on marijuana grown on public lands.

In a press statement, U.S. Attorney for Colorado John Walsh said, "Use of the public lands for marijuana cultivation is an environmental crime as well as a violation of our nation's anti-drug laws." Walsh said this is just one of 16 large marijuana grow sites that have been raided on Colorado public lands since 2009.

"Those who engage in this activity are endangering public safety and harming Colorado's treasured wild lands and high country, and will be apprehended and prosecuted to the full extent of the law," Walsh continued in the statement.

The U.S. Forest Service says that these large-scale illegal grow operations can seriously damage the public lands used to grow marijuana. Besides the trash and human waste left behind, native vegetation is generally cleared for the marijuana plants to grow, large volumes of water are usually diverted from local lakes and streams, and more natural vegetation as well as wildlife are often killed as pot growers introduce herbicides, pesticides and rodenticides to protect their crop. The garbage, poisons and waste can then also pollute local rivers and streams during a rainstorm. The U.S. Forest Service also says that the cost to clean up and restore the area to its natural state is around $15,000 an acre.

In Colorado alone, the Drug Enforcement Administration has seized over 1,400 plants, over 103 pounds of marijuana and $324,000 in cash connected to marijuana grown on public land. Last week in Pueblo County, an illegal grow site in private land was discovered and more than 13,000 marijuana plants were seized on the private land of the late Robert "Bob" Jackson -- a Pueblo community leader and former representative in the Colorado State House.

"This is the work of Mexican drug cartels," Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor said to The Pueblo Chieftain about the plants seized last week. "This stuff isn't being distributed here. It's being grown, harvested and sent to California or wherever. No doubt this is the biggest (grow) bust in the history of Pueblo County."

Although the Walsh's office says the "vast majority" of public land in Colorado is free from illegal marijuana grow activity, the U.S. Forest Service, DEA, BLM, National Park Service and other local and federal agencies are focused on locating and removing illegal pot grows.

"The Forest Service is aggressively and decisively combating this issue because public safety is our top priority," said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in a statement. "We vigilantly police our lands using all available law enforcement means to address this problem, mitigate its associated risks, and clean-up marijuana growing sites. While only a fraction of the National Forest System is affected by this illegal activity, our intent is to provide for the safety of all visitors on our lands."



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