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Federal Lands Bans Instagrammer: Charged With Federal Offense for Photos in National Forest

The most hated man in the Rockies, David Lesh, is back in the news with his most recent stunt. Believe it or not, taking commercial photos on federal land is big business. 

Most photographers know that you need a permit to film on federal property. Your favorite climbers, skiers, runners, and mountain bikers obtain permits for anything shot on federal land. But not David Lesh. 

Should he pay for his crimes against nature? Read about his most recent exploits and decide for yourself.

Let’s check it out!

Community Service and Fines for Posting Selfie in a National Forest?

The New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA) released a video on June 2 explaining the case against Lesh. The NCLA takes on issues pro bono that challenge what they call the “administrative state.” Let’s see what they have to say about Lesh’s case. 

The video introduces Lesh as a former pro-skier and current business owner who just wants to be outside. He started his business, Virtika, to sell the kind of gear he didn’t see in the marketplace. So far, so good. 

Like any good businessman in the age of Instagram, Lesh used his accounts to build an audience for his merchandise. But in 2019, he found out the cost of doing business in the digital age. 

The NCLA’s Claims

Over the last few years, federal authorities charged Lesh with over 12 federal offenses for his wilderness shenanigans. And the NCLA is challenging the ability of the U.S. Forest Service to prosecute crimes at all. Administrative overreach is their case. 

According to their argument, Congress should enforce the law, not the U.S. Forest Service. And they say that the rules are too vague to implement. 

The NCLA believes Lesh shouldn’t face charges because he wasn’t physically on federal land in those cases. Fair enough. But it gets more complicated.

The most recent charges are from when Lesh was on federal land. At least he and the Courts say he was. The NCLA is attempting to make the case that he wasn’t. They say the photos posted could be anyone because the rider in the picture is wearing a helmet. 

When the U.S. Forest Service shut down federal lands in 2020, Lesh went out to a closed terrain park in the national forest in Colorado. That’s the source of the initial violation. He took photos and posted them to his Instagram account, resulting in the second violation. 

The NCLA makes its arguments under the separation of powers and the First Amendment. Congress, not the U.S. Forest Service, should enforce the regulations. And Lesh should be able to use his First Amendment rights to post whatever he wants. 

It’s a slippery slope, to use Lesh’s words, if you can’t promote your business using federal lands. Isn’t it?

Who Is David Lesh?

As you may expect, the video presents one side of the argument. The NCLA paints a particular picture of David Lesh, which doesn’t tell the whole story. Lesh is a former pro skier and provocateur. 

Born in 1985, he made a name for himself by starting a business to essentially sponsor himself. His social media profile shows a high-rolling lifestyle with jets, bikini-clad women, and crazy stunts. 

As a small business owner, it’s hard to rise above the rest. The argument could be made that the photos he posts are just marketing. But there’s more going on here. 

An article in The New Yorker fleshes out Lesh’s profile, and it isn’t pretty. How did he earn the title of the “most hated man in the Rockies?” 

To begin with, he’s known as “the worst tourist in the world” for destroying delicate ecosystems in Colorado and beyond. He posted a photo of himself riding a Galapagos tortoise, an offense that got him kicked out of Ecuador. 

He regularly takes snowmobiles into federally-protected areas. And he posted a fake photo of himself taking a dump in a lake with the Maroon Bells peaks as a backdrop. Sounds like a real charmer. 

What Were the Initial Charges Against David Lesh?

Lesh’s legal expenses have climbed higher than Mt. Elbert in recent years. Charges stem from a couple of incidents. 

The first in 2019 came from riding his snowmobile below the snowline and destroying the alpine ecosystem. He was found guilty of those charges, fined $500, and ordered to do 50 hours of community service. 

The second set of charges comes from the photoshopped pictures he posted. Lesh readily admits he wanted to be charged for these offenses. And while the judge dropped the charges, he made it clear that Lesh was still in violation of the law.

Using photos of federal land to promote his business violated the law. He also encouraged his followers to engage in the same behavior, whether he actually did it or not.

When Lesh went snowmobiling in Colorado’s Keystone Resort in April 2020, he crossed a line. He operated a snowmachine off of a designated route. 

Another charge from the same photo alleges that Lesh used federal lands to sell merchandise without a permit. The judge in the case also suggested that Lesh thought he was above the law. He could face $10,000 in fines if found guilty. 

Currently banned from all federal lands, Lesh also can’t make any posts that depict breaking the law on federal lands. 

What’s the Current Status of the Lawsuit Against David Lesh?

Lesh was found guilty of the charges stemming from the Keystone Resort incident. He was supposed to face sentencing in December 2021, but David again thwarted justice. 

The day before the hearing, Lesh fired his attorney. The NCLA seeks to have the charges dismissed in new hearings and to build a social media push behind Lesh. 

What Is Leave No Trace?

To protect and maintain the lands we all love to explore, we must protect them. Lesh seems bent on exploiting our national forests for his own gain. 

The Leave No Trace ethos is part of our national identity. We’ve all seen the signs at trailheads about taking only photos and leaving only footprints, and for a good reason. Actions like Lesh’s degrade the environment and make it harder for the rest of us to enjoy.

As conscientious nature-lovers, you’d never empty your RV’s black tank in a lake just for likes on Instagram. And you’d never drive your motorhome out over a protected area just for kicks. 

It’s important to preserve these lands for future generations. No one wants to see your food wrappers and soda cans in Maroon Lake. 

Actions Have Consequences

In many ways, the case against David Lesh is about making a point. Bad behavior in the forest has consequences. 

The U.S. Forest Service finally found charges that would stick, and they’re going for it. After years of behavior that makes us cringe, he’ll hopefully be held accountable.  

Is David Lesh getting off easy or should the U.S. Forest Service drop the case? Let us know your thoughts in the comments! 

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