Forest Service investigates Independence Pass snowmobiling case after alleged culprit posted pictures on social media
ASPEN — The U.S. Forest Service opened an investigation Wednesday into a case of two men snowmobiling on snow-free terrain in designated wilderness on Independence Pass after receiving tips that one of the alleged culprits posted pictures of his illegal activity on social media.
“We’ve been given information about the possible identifications of the people,” White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said.
Numerous people contacted The Aspen Times on Wednesday after reading a story about three Aspen-area ecologists encountering two snowmobilers on the Upper Lost Man Trail on July 3. Readers noted that Breckenridge resident David Lesh posted pictures about snowmobiling on the Pass the next day on his Instagram and Facebook accounts.
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On Facebook, the outdoor clothing company Lesh founded, Virtika, posted three pictures of Lesh riding a snowmobile with the caption “@davidlesh sledding today on Independence Pass on Independence Day.”
On Lesh’s personal Instagram account (which has more than 36,000 followers) he posted the same photos and wrote: “Independence Pass on Independence Day. That’s a first.”
The pictures posted on July 4 show that Lesh found enough snow to sled on parts of the Pass. The Times cannot confirm what day those photos were taken.
But when he and a partner on July 3 traveled down Upper Lost Man, they were on bare ground. The three hikers confronted the men, who contended they weren’t doing anything illegal and had looked at maps of the area, according to Karin Teague, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation and one of the three hikers.
Comparing the social media photos Lesh posted July 4 to those that Teague took of the July 3 encounter, the photos show a man in red ski pants, a black-and-gray jacket and backpack, black hat and same custom-design paint work on the snowmobile, which includes the outerwear company Virtika name.
Lesh didn’t reply to messages and emails from The Aspen Times to his social media accounts and business. The identity of his sledding companion has not been verified.
According to Lesh’s photography website, the Chicago native moved to Colorado in 2005 to ski professionally and concentrate on photography. He said he founded Virtika in 2009 after he became “frustrated with my outerwear sponsors.”
Snowmobile use is only allowed on Highway 82 on the Independence Pass corridor. It’s never allowed in wilderness, where all motorized and mechanized uses are prohibited.
Lesh nurtures a bad-boy image and Virtika uses “bro-marketing” video clips and images that feature scantily clad women, drugs, guns and adventure to sell its clothing and gear — albeit with a sense of humor.
On his personal social media accounts, Lesh shows an ignorance or disregard for rules on snowmobile use on national forests. He posted pictures of himself March 27 on a snowmobile at what he identified as the summit of Mount Elbert.
“Battled our way to the summit of 14,439 ft tall Mt. Elbert, the highest peak of the North American Rocky Mountains,” he posted.
Mount Elbert is on the Twins Lakes side of Independence Pass in the San Isabel National Forest. Snowmobiling is not an allowed use on the upper mountain, forest spokeswoman Lucero Hernandez said Wednesday. Forest maps clearly show where snowmobiles are prohibited, she said.
Fitzwilliams said he heard from representatives of the snowmobiling community who were appalled by images of snowmobiles in the fragile, snow-free terrain of Upper Lost Man.
The Colorado Snowmobile Association, United Snowmobile Alliance and Backcountry United issued a joint statement Wednesday about the Lost Man incident.
The coverage and photos of the parties “operating snowmobiles without visible snow in a Designated Wilderness area does not reflect the Colorado community of tens of thousands of snowmobilers in any manner,” the statement said. “Rather this behavior is exactly the opposite of the community represented and is deeply troubling.
“As partners with federal, state and local managers in maintaining great recreation opportunities, we support strong environmentally friendly regulations as it pertains to state and federal riding areas,” the statement continued.
Scott Jones, president of the Colorado Snowmobile Association, said in the statement that the groups are working with the Forest Service to identify and prosecute the parties.
“We are fully cooperating with law enforcement efforts from the U.S. Forest Service and are helping to identify the individuals in these pictures and ensure they are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Jones said in the statement. “Our organizations work diligently with public land agencies to ensure access and responsible recreation and as such, we do not condone behaviors that damage the natural resources of Colorado.”
Lesh was also getting push back from individual snowmobilers on Wednesday.
“You dumbass. Great job helping to close access to sledding,” one person wrote on Lesh’s Instagram page.
Another wrote, “Way to show the non-sledders how it’s done. (Expletive.) Just proof that some people don’t deserve to be able to do whatever they want.”
Fitzwilliams said if a person is convicted of operation a snowmobile on a closed portion of the national forest, the penalty is a fine of $250 to $5,000.
Even if the tips don’t lead to prosecution, it will be an opportunity to educate people about the importance of snowmobiling where it is allowed and “certainly not in areas without snow,” Fitzwilliams said.
Teague said Wednesday that the incident has resulted in “disbelief and outrage from snowmobilers and non-motorized types alike.”
She is optimistic it can lead to a community-wide conversation about valuing and enjoying public lands in Colorado — and the importance of being good stewards of them. Forest visitors must take personal responsibility for knowing the regulations on use of the lands, she said.
“I think we can all get along,” Teague said. “Hopefully this incident will move us in that direction.”
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