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Final Count: 9,200 Pot Plants Seized in Raid

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By John Severance

Two days after numerous branches of law enforcement swooped in to bust a $10-million marijuana grow at Bandelier National Monument, superintendent Jason Lott said crews are scrutinizing other areas of the park.

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“We are actively looking for other grow areas along Bandelier. If there are other areas, we will find them and with the fire, that makes it easy,” Lott said.

“We are sending a clear message that we will be looking for that kind of stuff and we will find you. I don’t want this to be considered a prime place for this kind of activity.”

Lott said 9,200 plants were eradicated from the site and disposed of at an undisclosed location.

“The threat has been removed and there are no more plants,” Lott said. “Those people should not come back. There is nothing to come back to.”

On Thursday morning, the efforts of the National Park Service Special Events and Tactics Team (SETT), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the New Mexico State Police SWAT, the New Mexico National Guard, the Santa Fe National Forest, the Bernalillo and Sandoval County’s Sheriff Offices and the Los Alamos Police and Fire Departments raided the site.

The raid was conducted in a remote area of the monument guarded by steep terrain with soil and rocks loosened by the recent Las Conchas Fire.

No one has been apprehended but investigators did see at least two men at the grow site earlier in the week. In addition to the contraband, investigators on site located temporary housing structures, trash, food caches, and irrigation supplies.

“The evidence has not yet been processed,” Lott said. “Investigators are going through the evidence and they are developing a case. No one has been arrested yet.”

The investigation is expected to last several weeks, Lott said.

Officials at the operations center managing the raid had been planning for Thursday’s operation for about a week.  The marijuana grow operation was first detected on Aug. 23 during an over-flight of the area meant to determine damage to the park’s resources from recent floods associated with the Las Conchas Fire.  That flooding was caused when monsoonal rains fell on the fire ravaged terrain of the national park.

This was the first marijuana grow operation detected in Bandelier National Monument, and a DEA official on site said such grow operations have been rare in New Mexico.

Lott said the drug raid was a learning experience for all the park’s staff.

“The safety of all the members of this interagency task force, the park staff and the public has been our paramount concern before, during and throughout this operation,” Lott said. “Now that we are aware of how these illegal growing operations are conducted we will be even more vigilant in our efforts to make sure we don’t have other such illegal activities in the park again.”

Lott credited Tom Betts, chief ranger at Bandelier, for his response and planning with the different federal, state and local agencies involved for the success of the operation.  Specially trained law enforcement and military personnel took part in the raid and remained on the scene until all of the evidence was collected and transported out of the grow site.

“This was a precise tactical maneuver and working with this group of professionals has been a pleasure and a privilege,” Betts said.

Lott said he still has not been down to the site but he is planning to go this week.

Lott estimates the grow site had been there for about a year.

“We have not developed all the information yet,” Lott said. “Observationally, considering the amount of trash, it looks like they have been there for about a year. It was just so hard to see it from the air. The big trees mask it so well. I am just so glad somebody did not inadvertently come on upon the grow site because likely those people were armed.”

There also was evidence that those taking care of the pot grow fought the fire. There was a black line around the site.

“One of their structures was burned,” Lott said.