Mountain war pits makeshift smoke shacks against $15 beers

FRISCO — I feel sorry for the stoned-age Colorado snowboarders who last month led a film crew to the not-so-secret makeshift Leo’s cabin at Breckenridge Ski Area, where they showed off their inhaling skills and then slithered down the mountain like a pair of senile lizards. They probably had no idea that the Inside Edition clip would go viral, ultimately prompting Vail Resorts and the U.S. Forest Service to demolish the illegal two-story hut, frequently used as a smoke shack by marijuana enthusiasts.

The Breckenridge smoke shack, and others like it stashed-away in hidden ski area spots, are a vestige of the good old days when weed was bootlegged and smoked in private, not on newspop TV for all the world to see. Its demolition a few days after the Inside Edition piece aired, shows some of the tension between state and federal marijuana laws.

Media coverage of the smoke shack demolition has focused on the sexy aspects of the story: Pot is legal in Colorado, skiing stoned is dangerous (and still illegal on federal land) and hiding in the woods in a treehouse is cool. But there’s a more nuanced version that hasn’t gotten a lot of play.

According to Forest Service snow ranger Shelly Grail — who skis the local resorts nearly every day during the season — the builders didn’t just use dead and down lodgepole pines for their woodsy venture. Instead, they brought in building materials from the outside, likely using a ski area road during the summer to haul lumber and glass windows to the site.

In the process of building the cabin, they also damaged living trees, Grail said. A visit to many of the smoke shacks also shows that the builders often raid resort facilities to furnish their shelters, and most of the shacks that Grail knows of have become sources of trash deep in the forest. Simply put, the well-known cabins such as Leo’s become an attractive nuisance. By letting them remain once they’ve gained notoriety, the resort and the Forest Service are opening themselves up to liability.

As Grail sees it, the enterprising shack builders could put their creative energy to better use by volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. The renegade construction projects also violate a slew of federal environmental laws, Grail said.

Breckenridge, owned by Vail Resorts, operates on public land and must follow an extensive review process before building new facilities or clearing trails.There’s no reason someone else should be allowed to shortcut the process and build a shack anywhere they like in the federal forest, Grail argued.

The battle between smoke shack builders and the Forest Service has been going on quietly for decades. As soon as one cabin is knocked down, a few more spring up, deeper in the woods, in the hopes of avoiding Johnny Law. But Leo’s was no secret any more and Grail said the plan was to take down the infamous Breckenridge smoke shack this summer. But when the national media spotlight shone on Leo’s, Vail Resorts decided to act immediately, with the agency’s support, Grail said.

The demolition of Leo’s was met mostly with indignation, even from many non-pot-smoking residents of Breckenridge and Summit County, who understand instinctively that the shacks are more than a place to just kick back and light up. They represent a backlash against the over-development and over-commercialization of public lands with money-grubbing resort facilities.

“I get it,” Grail said. “Guys bring a couple of beers in their backpack, but they can’t sit in the Vista Haus and drink them,” Grail said, explaining part of the reason the shacks are popular.

Ironically, use of the smoke shacks embodies much of what Vail Resorts’ tourist brochures encourage — relax and enjoy the peaceful stillness of the Rocky Mountains. And that’s a lot easier to do if you’re a little off the beaten path, away from the din of snowmaking guns and the diesel exhaust of snow grooming machines.

Of course, Vail Resorts wants you to enjoy the mountains in their own corporate “epic” way, which includes being tracked by a radio chip embedded in your ski pass, renting your skis at a Vail-owned shop and buying your refreshments at a Vail-owned restaurant.

No wonder many people called out Vail Resorts for being hypocritical by condemning pot use while encouraging alcohol consumption, and no wonder we seek solace in the trees!

There’s no question the resort and the Forest Service have a point when they say that marijuana use is illegal on federal land, and Summit County Sheriff John Minor had a warning for pot-smoking resort visitors.

“Whatever you do, don’t thumb your nose at the feds,” Minor said, explaining that blatant disregard for federal laws is  asking for trouble, both on the part of the skiers and riders, and the resorts, which have federal permits at stake.

“If you want this big experiment to continue, follow the rules,” Minor added, noting that the voters who passed Amendment 64 voted for a very clear set of do’s and dont’s.

For its part, the Forest Service says it will enforce federal laws on drug use, but it’s clearly not a high priority. So far this season, law enforcement officers with the White River National Forest have issued exactly two citations for illegal marijuana use at ski resorts, both at Vail, along with three other tickets on other parts of the national forest. Those five stoned national forest visitors represent an infinitesimal fraction of all the people toking up on the slopes and in the backcountry. Even with the demolition of four shacks, the Forest Service knows there are dozens more scattered around local resorts and in the backcountry, but Grail said the agency isn’t planning any extensive search and destroy missions.

“It’s not a high priority,” she said.

The furor over Leo’s will die down, although it will be interesting to see how Vail and Forest Service respond to the lively social media campaign to rebuild the shack. But let’s hope the media circus over the destruction of Leo’s is a teachable moment for skiers and snowboarders stoked about Colorado’s new era of pot freedom.

Maybe they’ll think twice before leading reporters to their secret spots.

[ Top image of a log shelter built on national forest land near Loveland Pass. It’s one of dozens scattered around the White River National Forest. By Bob Berwyn. ]