Bandelier marijuana grow scene revisited

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Crime: Officials find religious shrine, pot filled mattresses deep inside park

By Carol A. Clark

New sprouts were discovered by Bandelier officials last Sunday when they returned to the scene of a massive marijuana farm growing deep in one of the most remote areas of the national park.

The Las Conchas Fire earlier this summer appeared to have scorched the ground near the farm and agents reported finding melted remnants of a tent and a two story lookout tower built near the operation. They also discovered mattresses comprised of dried out marijuana leaves, a rifle, a large pit with an entrance about seven feet deep and a shrine containing a cross and religious candles.

“It took a little more than 2 1/2 hours to hike in from the Apache Springs Trailhead,” park superintendent Jason Lott said. “The hike out was worse because we went up a 45-degree incline straight out of the canyon near the Orange ski trail – it was a tough, tough hike.”

Park officials said the men tending the farm built a reservoir to irrigate the fields and grew a vegetable garden. Officials believe the men left during the fire and only recently returned to resume operations.  

“We found a bottle of hot sauce from Mexico,” Lott said. “And pesticides with directions printed in Spanish. We even found some zucchini plants.”

Lott said the individuals at the grow site were careful not to leave a footpath to their operation.

“They must have modified their route to the site because there was no clear path,” Lott said. “It was a very sophisticated marijuana grow site.”

Various law enforcement agencies raided the clandestine farm Sept. 2 after it was spotted a week earlier during a helicopter flight scouting potential flood danger in the 33,677 acre national monument.

Chief Ranger Tom Betts said at the time that he immediately recognized that a pot plantation was hiding beneath a green tarp in the three to four acre area.

Park rangers watched the farm from a lookout for a week. They reported seeing two men tending the crops and building small structures and also observed a nearby creek supplied water to the plants. The men vanished into the forest as law enforcement officers moved in to raid the operation.

“We have not arrested any suspects related to this investigation,” said Los Alamos Police Capt. Randy Foster on Saturday.

Officials reported that it took helicopters 10 runs to haul out the 9,210 plants, growing as high as 10-feet tall in at least three areas of the farm. The plants were destroyed at an undisclosed location, according to officials.

While this was the first marijuana crop found growing in Bandelier, rangers are surveying other remote areas of the park to ensure against any more.

Betts said they are not going to let any more marijuana growers set up operations in their park, which has become a trend in national parks across the country, especially in California.

“We are going to be very vigilant so this does not happen again,” Lott said.