A part-time Colorado resident who documents his disrespect for public lands on social media learned Friday what happens when defendants try to go toe-to-toe with a federal judge.
David Lesh agreed to a compromise on Oct. 2 that allowed him to enter U.S. Forest Service lands if he followed the same rules as everyone else. But after he flouted that agreement 19 days later by posting a picture on Instagram of himself defecating in Maroon Lake, U.S. Magistrate Gordon Gallagher lowered the boom.
As of Friday, Lesh, 35, is, for the foreseeable future, banned from entering millions of acres of U.S. Forest Service lands because of the photo posted on Oct. 21, Gallagher said.
In addition to the ban, the judge forbid Lesh from posting any picture or video on any social media platform of himself or anyone else violating state or federal laws on any federal lands under the jurisdiction of the court, including National Forests, National Monuments, Bureau of Land Management land and other federal property.
“I find it appropriate to change (Lesh’s bond conditions) … to protect the land, not only from Mr. Lesh’s direct actions, but also from the influence Mr. Lesh clearly has” on social media, Gallagher said. The judge also said he was issuing the ruling “to ensure the safety of the community.”
The ban will last at least the duration of the current federal case against him. Lesh asked the judge to postpone the ban and the other conditions until he could hire a new attorney, probably by the end of next week.
“The request is denied,” Gallagher said, noting that Lesh must sign the new conditions by Tuesday or risk arrest.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Grand Junction in early October had threatened to ban Lesh from Forest Service lands. That’s when he appeared in U.S. District Court in Grand Junction to answer allegations that he trespassed — and posted proof of his actions on social media — at Keystone Ski Area in late April and Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs this summer.
However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Hautzinger and Lesh’s attorney, Stephen Laische of Grand Junction, were able to work out the compromise that was accepted by Gallagher on Oct. 2.
Under conditions of that compromise, Lesh agreed not to trespass on closed national forest lands and to abide by all rules on open lands or risk arrest and/or forfeiture of a $1,000 bond.
Nineteen days later, he posted the Maroon Lake picture on Instagram with a caption Gallagher read out loud during Friday’s virtual court hearing.
“Moved to Colorado 15 years ago, finally made it to Maroon Lake,” Lesh wrote. “A scenic dump with no one there was worth the wait.”
A law enforcement officer with the U.S. Forest Service, who supervised the investigation into the photo, noted in an affidavit that Maroon Lake is “part of the watershed that supplies drinking water to Aspen, Colorado, and is one of the most visited sites in the National Forest system,” according to a motion Hautzinger filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court. The photo was included with the motion.
“What appears to be fecal matter exiting the body of Lesh is visible in the photo,” according to the officer’s affidavit.
The officer also noted that it is against the rules to enter Maroon Lake in any way, including wading, swimming or boating. However, according to the affidavit, he also found evidence that the photo “may be older or manipulated in some manner.”
“(The forest service officer) reported to me that water level in Maroon Lake was currently lower than the Instagram post depicts as well as the presence of floating avalanche debris in the lake that is not present in the Instagram photo,” Special Agent Ben Leach wrote in the affidavit. The officer “was also unable to locate the driftwood log in the foreground.”
On Friday, Hautzinger acknowledged that the photo might have been taken before Gallagher accepted the bond condition compromise Oct. 2.
“But the mere posting of the photo shows the defendant’s intent to flout the court’s order,” Hautzinger said.
Laische filed a motion Oct. 22 to withdraw as Lesh’s attorney, “as a result of the defendant’s latest Instagram posting,” according to Hautzinger’s motion.
Laische on Friday cited “irreconcilable difference” with his client in wanting to end the relationship, though he continued to act as Lesh’s attorney throughout Friday’s proceedings.
Laische called Lesh’s actions “injudicious,” but said a total ban on millions of acres of forest land was not appropriate or enforceable.
The judge disagreed.
Gallagher acknowledged that “it’s entirely conceivable that (Lesh’s) conduct is contemptuous of the court’s order of Oct. 2,” but the conduct did not occur in the judge’s presence, so he said it wasn’t for him to revoke Lesh’s bond and have him arrested. The U.S. Attorney’s Office can proceed with contempt of court charges against Lesh if it wants, he said.
But it was within Gallagher’s purview to alter the conditions of Lesh’s bond, he said, before issuing the forest ban.
Lesh’s Maroon Lake post has prompted condemnation from nearly every corner of the Roaring Fork Valley.
The Forest Service’s district ranger whose territory includes the Maroon Bells area called the picture “deeply offensive,” while Pitkin County’s sheriff said Lesh’s behavior was “totally unacceptable.” Area residents were equally outraged.
Not only did that come through in comments on the websites of both Aspen daily newspapers, but also on Lesh’s Instagram post itself, though he also received accolades from his supporters for the photo. In addition, 23 people — mainly Roaring Fork Valley residents — wrote letters to Gallagher that are part of Lesh’s court file urging the harshest punishment possible for his repeated acts of disrespect to public lands in the area.
Most of those letters expressed variations of the sentiment succinctly conveyed by Christopher Anson of Aspen.
“Please throw the book at David Lesh,” Anson wrote. “Please give him the maximum sentences for every infraction. Please ban him from ALL public lands. He obviously has no respect for the court’s previous actions.”
Lesh first came to the attention of Aspen locals on July 3, 2019, when the executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation spotted him piloting his snowmobile over grass and fragile terrain near the Upper Lost Man Trailhead on Independence Pass. He was charged with four petty offenses after a Forest Service investigation and later paid a $500 fine and performed 50 hours of community service under terms of a plea deal.
Just as that case wound down, Lesh was charged with riding his snowmobile in Keystone’s terrain park while the ski area was closed because of COVID-19. He posted a photo of himself taking the sled off a jump. At the same time, he was charged with five counts related to his entering Hanging Lake on June 10 while it was closed because of the coronavirus and posting a picture of himself illegally climbing on a log in the lake.
That case remains ongoing.
On Friday, Gallagher asked if Lesh understood the new conditions forbidding him from National Forests and from posting pictures of himself or others breaking laws on federal public lands.
“The post of the defecating in Maroon Lake …” Lesh began before Laische cut him off.
“I’m advising you to refrain from talking about that,” his soon-to-be ex-lawyer said. “Please don’t get into that.”
Lesh continued to try to speak and Laische continued to try and stop him, at one point telling him “no” and that he could not talk in court until Gallagher finally broke in.
“David Lesh, stop talking for a moment,” the judge said, noting that Laische’s advice to stop talking was good because Lesh can be charged by the government in connection with the Maroon Lake photo.