Feds crack down on illegal “smoke shacks”

Some skiers cited

United States Forest Service law enforcement agents have been searching Crested Butte Mountain Resort this past week investigating the extent of illegal “smoke shacks.” Some skiers were caught with illicit items on Sunday, February 17, when Forest Service agents observed them allegedly smoking marijuana at one of the shacks.


Illegal structures can be found from the extreme limits terrain to high traffic areas right under a lift. Their construction ranges from simple lean-tos to fully enclosed tree houses.

But regardless of where or what, it’s unlikely that anyone had a building permit—the shacks are illegal structures, built on Forest Service land without permission. And while many people may know they exist, few may know where.
CBMR vice president Ken Stone says, “I’m sure we’ve got a few… I know they’re probably all over just about every ski area in Colorado.”
CBMR assistant mountain manager Dale Massey says the Forest Service is concerned about the extent of illegal structures on Crested Butte Mountain Resort. “They don’t look kindly on stuff being built in the forest, regardless of what it is,” Massey says.
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Mountain manager Jack Gibbons says, “Forest Service law enforcement approached us about going into National Forest on the ski area and having a look around. Obviously they knew there were some structures out there that were problematic and they don’t like them.”
According to U.S. Forest Service patrol captain Dan Nielsen, “It is illegal to construct, or maintain any structure on forest service land without special use authorization.” He says maintenance would include tightening string or wires holding the structure together, or clearing a path to access a structure.
Nielsen says inspecting the ski area for illegal structures is a routine procedure. “We’ve worked with the other resorts and found similar structures,” he says.
The structures pose several problems, Nielsen says. One of them is safety concerns. He says, “If somebody is skiing through the trees and isn’t aware something is there it could create a crash hazard.” He says people also tend to congregate around the structures, and then skier-on-skier collisions could occur.
Aside from safety, the shacks pose environmental concerns and natural resource damage. “If you build these things they tend to use a lot of native materials. In some of the structures it was apparent they used awls from some of the surrounding trees,” Nielsen says. The structures also used nails, rope, and wire that can accumulate in the forest, or damage trees they are affixed to, he says.
Damage to the trees could lead to bark beetle infestation, Nielsen says, a problem that is afflicting thousands of acres of National Forests across the state, but has yet to overtake the Crested Butte area.
Nielsen says the law enforcement officers also observed trash in the snow in and around some of the half-dozen structures they investigated.
However, just because the shacks are found doesn’t mean they will immediately be taken down, Nielsen says. “It depends on the circumstance. If it poses an immediate threat to public health and safety we get in there and try to get them removed as quick as possible. If there’s no immediate threat we’ll do it at the first available opportunity.”
Massey says CBMR doesn’t have an official policy on smoke shacks. At times in the past, Massey says, the resort would work together with the Forest Service to eradicate the illegal structures. But, he says, eventually the resort relaxed its practice. “Of course, you tear one down, and four more pop up. It went by the wayside after some time,” Massey says.
The Forest Service officers went beyond just investigating the illegal shacks. On Sunday, February 17 Forest Service agents were present at one of the shacks when several skiers appeared and began smoking marijuana. Nielsen says the officers had probable cause to search the skiers after observing their behavior.
“They were observed smoking marijuana, which is illegal in the state of Colorado. It is illegal regardless of where you’re at on federal property,” Nielsen says.
Nielsen says the skiers were issued a summons in U.S. District Court in Grand Junction. Nielsen said he did not have the details of how many skiers (or snowboarders as they were not identified) were present or issued summons.
Nielsen says the skiers weren’t breaking the law just because of possessing marijuana, but also because they were smoking it while skiing at the resort. “According to the Colorado Skier Safety Act they violate the law whether they ski under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Just a couple hits of a joint or drinking a pint and they’re considered under the influence,” he says.
Nielsen says the Forest Service will be following up on the summons to see if it can be learned who built the shacks. “If it can be determined who built the structure, or who has been maintaining the structure, they will be cited,” he says.
Mt. Crested Butte police chief Hank Smith says because the agents were acting on federal authority, they can issue summons only in a federal court.
Smith says, “In this state possession of less than an ounce is a petty offense. There’s no chance of jail. The fine is usually 200 bucks.”
Smith says the Mt. Crested Butte police do not handle many situations of marijuana use at CBMR. “In our world, given staffing levels and the other problems we may be dealing with, if someone is smoking a joint and doing nothing but—on our priority list that’s somewhere below cows on the road,” he says. 

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