Paraglider’s wilderness flight captured attention of rangers
December 16, 2010
ASPEN – The U.S. Forest Service is pondering whether to take enforcement action against Aspen mountaineer Dick Jackson, who took an ill-fated paragliding flight in wilderness on Oct. 2.
Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson said his staff’s research has established that paragliding is prohibited in a designated wilderness area. Jackson launched off the top of Mount Sopris, which is in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
A provision of the federal code specifically says that hang gliders and bicycles are prohibited in wilderness. Case law has established that the prohibition on hang gliders refers to paragliders, just as the reference to bicycles pertains to unicycles, said Rich Doak, a recreation staff officer with the White River National Forest Supervisor’s Office.
Snelson said there was no rush to investigate the incident because the facts of the case “weren’t going to change” and Jackson needed time to heal from serious injuries he suffered in a paragliding crash that day.
Jackson crashed between Dinkle Lake and Thomas Lakes after encountering a strong headwind. He suffered extensive injuries, including a compression fracture in his lower back. He was airlifted off Mount Sopris by a Flight for Life helicopter, then spent more than two months in Denver hospitals before returning home to Basalt last week. He expects to make a full recovery.
Now that Jackson is home and recovering, the Forest Service will take up the matter.
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“We’re going to have a sit-down discussion about where we go from here with Scott [Fitzwilliams, the forest supervisor] and law enforcement,” Snelson said.
Jackson was surprised to learn Wednesday that he might face an enforcement action. “It’s totally non-mechanical,” he said of paragliding.
Wilderness regulations ban use of motorized and mechanized machines and activities. A paraglider doesn’t have a motor. A pilot sits in a harness suspended below a fabric wing.
Forest rangers said problems with paragliders in wilderness around the Aspen area have been few and far between. “I don’t know that we’ve even written a ticket for it, it’s so infrequent,” Doak said.
Citations are much more common for snowmobile drivers and mountain bikers who poach wilderness. Nevertheless, Jackson’s foray into wilderness caught the attention of at least one local wilderness advocate. Bob Shettel of Redstone wrote a letter to the editor of The Aspen Times this week saying he was glad that Jackson is recovering from his injuries but that he was curious if Jackson would be ticketed for paragliding in wilderness.
Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the wilderness advocacy group Wilderness Workshop, declined comment on the Jackson incident. He said it was a Forest Service matter.
Doak said illegal activity in wilderness like paragliding is a petty offense, the least severe level of an infraction. The potential fine is between $500 and $5,000.
Forest Service officials are pondering alternatives to a citation and fine. Martha Moran, a recreation staff officer in the Aspen-Sopris District, said Jackson might be enlisted for some type of educational effort about wilderness. Snelson agreed that might be appropriate.
“At the end of the day, we want folks to know that paragliding in wilderness is illegal. We don’t want people to do it,” he said.