David Lesh reaches plea deal in illegal Independence Pass snowmobile case
Assistant U.S. attorney: Lesh could face charges in Keystone, Hanging Lake incidents
A Colorado business owner’s publicity stunts involving illegal use of public lands could get him temporarily banned from the White River National Forest.
David Lesh, 35, the owner of outdoor clothing company Virtika Outerwear, was fined $500 on Tuesday and ordered to perform 50 hours of useful public service this summer for illegally riding his snowmobile July 3, 2019, in designated wilderness near the summit of Independence Pass. Wilderness areas are closed to mechanized and motorized travel.
Lesh and another snowmobiler who hasn’t been identified were observed sledding near the Upper Lost Man trailhead by Karin Teague, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation, and two colleagues. They reported the incursion to the U.S. Forest Service, which was able to track down Lesh from photos he posted on social media.
The plea arrangement involving the fine and useful public service was announced in federal court in Grand Junction.
“We’re happy to see the charges were filed and went through,” White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said Tuesday.
Lesh was cited for four petty offenses for the Independence Pass snowmobile event: possessing of 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. For such offenses, the punishment was consistent with other cases, Fitzwilliams said.
“Hopefully it sends a message that we take illegal and irresponsible behavior seriously,” Fitzwilliams said.
While the case was winding its way through the federal court system this spring, Lesh allegedly rode a snowmobile illegally in a terrain park at Keystone ski area, which was closed because of the coronavirus. He also posted pictures recently of himself walking on a log jutting out into pristine Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon. At the time of the post, a regional closure of developed facilities was in place by the U.S. Forest Service. That prohibited access to the lake.
Lesh has also posted photos of himself snowmobiling on closed terrain on Mount Elbert and standing on a sled submerged in a stream near Steamboat Springs. A biography on one of his social media accounts says he is a part-time resident of Colorado.
Even as his court appearance in the Independence Pass case loomed, Lesh posted pictures of himself allegedly undertaking the illegal activities at Hanging Lake and Keystone. Fitzwilliams said all information collected by the Forest Service about those incidents was forwarded to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Fitzwilliams said he has witnessed several times during his career where repeat offenders of illegal activity on national forest were banned from use of public lands, at least temporarily.
The prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Hautzinger, said in court Tuesday he intends to file charges against Lesh for the other incidents.
“All of them have been documented by photographs the defendant took and posted to social media,” Hautzinger said.
Lesh’s actions have produced a backlash. A petition posted via change.org and circulated on Facebook calls for the state of Colorado to revoke the business license of Virtika for encouraging the destruction of protected ecosystems. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 13,800 people had signed it.
The petition accuses Lesh and his company of abusing public lands to bring attention to his company. Fitzwilliams said his office has received scores of emails, texts and calls encouraging aggressive prosecution for the offenses.
“The public is very angry with this,” he said. “One thing we know is people love their national forest. It’s nice to see so many people care.”
He indicated he shares the belief that Lesh’s behavior is in pursuit of publicity.
“We hope that Mr. Lesh finds a different avenue to gain attention,” Fitzwilliams said.
Teague said she isn’t confident that Lesh is remorseful for his actions.
“I think he won’t even feel a $500 fine,” she said.
Public service, in theory, is a worthwhile sentence, she said. If not for his other alleged infractions after the Independence Pass incident, she would have been willing to have Lesh volunteer on conservation projects on the Pass.
“There’s not a cell in my body that feels he will change, that any of his professions for remorse are genuine or that he cares for the landscape,” Teague said.
The only punishment Lesh might feel is if his company isn’t supported, she concluded.
Any new charges against Lesh are unlikely to be unveiled before his next federal court appearance on Sept. 15 in Grand Junction. At the hearing Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gordon Gallagher said Lesh must complete his useful public service by Sept. 5.
Hautzinger said the plea agreement was arranged after Lesh’s initial court appearance on Feb. 25. It specified that the useful public service should be performed in the national forest where the infractions occurred. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, it has been understandably difficult for Lesh to complete the service, Hautzinger said.
Lesh’s attorney, Stephen Laiche of Grand Junction, said his client attempted to arrange public service in Wisconsin, but was unable to find anything satisfactory. He said Lesh wanted to complete the 50 hours with Only One Inc., a Boulder-based organization that Laiche indicated was tied to a Native American cause. Laiche didn’t identify what type of tasks Lesh would undertake with Only One to fulfill his public service. Neither the judge nor the prosecutor inquired.
GuideStar, a clearinghouse for information on nonprofit organization, raised red flags about Only One Inc., which it classified as a multipurpose arts and cultural organization.
“This organization’s exempt status was automatically revoked by the IRS for failure to file a Form 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, or 990-PF for 3 consecutive years,” said a notice on GuideStar. “Further investigation and due diligence are warranted.”
Efforts by The Aspen Times to reach David Atekpatzin Young, who was identified by Laiche as the contact at Only One, were unsuccessful. Previous news reports identified Young as a member of the Genizaro Apache Tribe.
Lesh’s notoriety isn’t limited to the land. Lesh was also involved in a plane crash off the coast of California in August 2019. No one was injured.
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the crash, saying at the time that it usually takes up to a year to determine the cause of an accident.
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