Aspen Times Editorial: If guilty, snowmobilers on Independence Pass should have to work in field, not just pay fine
The idea of getting a cool picture at all costs in the great outdoors reached a new low July 3 when two snowmobilers were seen running their machines through prohibited public lands near the summit of Independence Pass.
The fact that the men were observed by the executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation while making their way down snow-free ground alongside the Upper Lost Man Trail makes the incident particularly ironic. The foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Pass’s fragile environment. The actions of the snowmobilers did just the opposite.
One of the snowmobilers spotted on July 3, David Lesh, posted photos of himself on social media yahooing on his snowmobile in snowier terrain elsewhere on the Pass. He claimed to be sledding “on Independence Pass on Independence Day” in his postings.
It’s not clear if Lesh was sledding on both days or if he passed off his journey on July 3 as occurring on July 4.
What is clear is Lesh and his companion traveled in prohibited areas of the White River National Forest. Highway 82 is the only designated winter route for snowmobiles along the Independence Pass corridor. The terrain surrounding the summit both north and south of Highway 82 is prohibited for motorized, over-snow travel. It is clearly marked as such in the White River National Forest’s Motor Vehicle Use Map.
The boundary for the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness is on a steep hillside east of the Upper Lost Man Trail. The witnesses suspect the snowmobilers accessed the Lost Man drainage by crossing into designated wilderness but that cannot be confirmed.
Even if Lesh and his companion somehow managed to skirt the wilderness boundary, they clearly traveled in a prohibited area, either through arrogance or ignorance. Then Lesh flaunted it. Last Friday, one of his social media posts featured an image of The Aspen Times article about his transgression along with the picture of Lesh on his sled on the Pass.
“I’d like to thank everyone that made this possible,” he wrote with emojis of prayer hands and a laughing face.
Lesh displays no regard for protecting fragile public lands. He had another social media post from earlier this winter showing himself on his snowmobile at what he said was the summit of Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest point. We checked with officials at the Pike-San Isabel National Forest and confirmed upper Mount Elbert is off-limits to snowmobiles and clearly marked as such on their winter travel map.
We realize Lesh’s disregard for travel restrictions doesn’t represent the actions and ethics of most snowmobilers. Snowmobile groups and individuals were quick to condemn Lesh for his deeds. They realize what he did feeds some people’s perceptions of untamed “slednecks.”
The Forest Service opened an investigation of the snowmobilers’ actions, and we hope they are able to move forward with prosecution of the case.
If convicted, Lesh and his companion shouldn’t be let off the hook with a fine. We advocate for a sentence in tune with restorative justice — in the true sense of the word. Lesh and friend should be sentenced to a hefty amount of supervised, useful public service, with tasks such as planting trees and stabilizing hillsides on the Pass. They should be required to work on one of the projects organized by the Independence Pass Foundation.
It would also be fitting if Lesh’s outdoor wear company was required to contribute a sizable donation to a nonprofit organization working to protect Colorado’s public lands.
And finally, Lesh should be required to appear before a gathering of Colorado Snowmobile Association members to apologize for giving sledders a black eye through his behavior.
Issuing a fine would only send a message that money can buy a way out of a crime or transgression. Lesh and his companion should be hit where it hurts the most — by taking away some of their free time and ability to get out and play.
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When judged by the usual metrics, the COVID-plagued 2020-21 ski season will go into the books as a horrible one for Aspen and Snowmass.