ASPEN — A man suspected of riding his snowmobile in fragile, off-limits terrain on Independence Pass on July 3 faces four petty offenses filed by the U.S. Forest Service.
David Lesh, 34, a Denver resident and founder of a Colorado-based outdoor clothing company, was cited for possessing or using a motor vehicle in a designated wilderness, prohibited to operate or possess an over-the-snow vehicle on National Forest Lands in violation of restrictions, damaging any natural feature or other property of the United States, and selling or offering for sale any merchandise or conducting any kind of work activity.
The charges were revealed Tuesday in U.S. District Court of Colorado in Grand Junction, where Lesh had his first appearance. Lesh wasn’t required to appear but was represented by Grand Junction attorney Stephen Laiche. The case was continued until June 16.
“At that hearing hopefully this matter will be resolved,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement.
The incident came to light July 3 when Independence Pass Foundation executive director Karin Teague and two other women saw two snowmobilers close to the Upper Lost Man Trailhead off Highway 82. The women were undertaking an research project to gauge if and how bloom times are changing for alpine flowers. The men operated their snowmobiles over wet ground to reach the parking area along Highway 82, according to the women.
“There was no snow anywhere in the Lost Man Basin at all,” Teague told The Aspen Times in July. “The issue is all the damage it does to the fragile tundra.”
After the encounter was publicized, numerous people alerted The Aspen Times that Lesh had posted pictures on his Instragram and Facebook accounts about snowmobiling on Independence Pass. On Instagram, Lesh posted photos with the caption, “Independence Pass on Independence Day. That’s a first.”
While the post said he was sledding July 4, it appears it was actually a reference to his trip July 3.
The Forest Service opened an investigation in mid-July after a public outcry. The social media posts played a key role in Forest Service law enforcement officers’ decision to cite Lesh. A “probable cause statement” filed in court said the law enforcement branch of the White River National Forest received Teague’s photographs of two snowmobilers riding across “fragile high tundra” down to the Upper Lost Man Trailhead.
“One individual is riding a black and white striped Polaris snowmobile with a logo of ‘Virtika’ on the engine cowling,” the statement said. “The individual is wearing red pants, a gray jacket, not wearing a helmet and carrying a black backpack with white trim.”
Virtika is Lesh’s clothing company.
The law enforcement officers said the equipment, clothing and appearance of one of the men in the pictures taken by Teague were a match of the person, equipment and clothing posted on David Lesh’s Instagram account.
“The photos are consistent with the wilderness area near Independence Pass,” the statement said. “Facial features, body build, skin tone, hair color and sex of the individual match photos of David Lesh.”
The Forest Service sent a wilderness ranger July 20 to the site where the snowmobiles were spotted. The ranger “documented tracks and natural resource damage leading up the drainage that is consistent with recent illegal snowmobile activity,” the probable cause statement said. “Additionally, damage was documented in the Congressionally designated Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness. The wilderness boundary is quite close to the parking area for the Upper Lost Man trailhead.”
The terrain from the summit of Independence Pass, where photos indicate the snowmobilers started their journey, to Upper Lost Man Trailhead makes it difficult though not necessarily impossible to avoid designated wilderness. However, snowmobiles are banned from terrain outside of a narrow Highway 82 corridor along Independence Pass and its approaches, Forest Service maps show.
The probable cause statement said Forest Service law enforcement officials viewed additional social media posts such as a YouTube video from Virtika Outerwear Co. to allegedly match Lesh and his snowmobile to the images of the snowmobiler on Independence Pass.
Forest Service officials said they would not discuss the case until it is resolved in federal court. It couldn’t be determined if a second person was cited for the July 3 snowmobile trip.
Teague said Tuesday it required a lot of work on the part of the Forest Service to get to the point where charges could be filed.
“The Forest Service took it very seriously,” she said. “I’m grateful to see they followed it through.”
The Independence Pass Foundation has an ongoing concern about illegal snowmobile travel in the corridor.
“This is what’s required to get the word out that this won’t be tolerated,” Teague said of the Lesh case.
Lesh gained notoriety again in August when he crashed landed his airplane into the Pacific Ocean. He was uninjured in that incident.
This story is from AspenTimes.com.