Jonathan Thesenga speaks to set record straight

On May 6, SNEWS received the following statement from Jonathan Thesenga, former editor of Climbing magazine, via a PR firm. We are printing it here in full as it is the first time Thesenga has chosen to speak out on the subject of his being cited by Joshua Tree rangers for a lighting fire atop a rock formation in Joshua Tree National Park.

On May 6, SNEWS received the following statement from Jonathan Thesenga, former editor of Climbing magazine, via a PR firm. We are printing it here in full as it is the first time Thesenga has chosen to speak out on the subject of his being cited by Joshua Tree rangers for a lighting fire atop a rock formation in Joshua Tree National Park.

"Hindsight is indeed a deeply painful lesson. I speak from experience because in the past month I've appeared before a federal magistrate, plead guilty to a misdemeanor, lost my dream job, and seen my reputation shattered by misinformed fellow journalists and climbers.

I want to clarify the facts concerning an incident in which I was involved this past New Year's Eve (Dec. 31, 2002) at Joshua Tree National Park. On December 31, 2002, while camping with friends in Joshua Tree National Park, I lit afire some white gas on top of a granite rock during a New Year's Eve celebration. I was immediately ticketed by Park Rangers for “disposing of smoldering or lit material in a manner to create a public safety hazard.”

I am very sorry for my actions on New Year's Eve. Never did I intend to harm the Park or did I think this juvenile prank would throw my life into such turmoil. In the end, my foolish prank cost me my wonderful position as Editor of Climbing Magazine. The entire episode has had a negative impact on my former co-workers at Climbing Magazine and climber/ranger relations at Joshua Tree National Park. There is no excuse for what I did, and, as I have said from the beginning, I accept full responsibility for my actions and the resulting ramifications.

However, I feel it is important to set the record straight. Apparently because I was editor of an outdoor magazine, tthe National Park Service has chosen to make me their example of climber misbehavior in national parks. This has resulted in inaccuracies, and exaggerations on the Internet and newspapers about the incident.

Most important is the fact that I most certainly expressed remorse and regret during my court appearance on April 4, 2003. The Park Service has issued a press release on the court action suggesting something different. In court, I was ashamed and embarrassed, not arrogant or cavalier. My impulsive, drunken actions on New Year's Eve showed extreme poor judgment, as I told the magistrate judge. I related to the judge how much I loved the park, how I had been climbing there for over 10 years, and would never purposely cause harm to it. I also told the court that what I had done was something I would regret for the rest of my life (clearly more prophetic now than when I said those words), and that I would accept whatever punishment the court deemed fair.

The Park Service claims I told the rangers that I wanted to start more fires or that I would perform the same stunt next year. After receiving my citation, I did return to the campsite and drunkenly joked around the campfire with other climbers. There were plenty of facetious remarks, fueled by alcohol, by nearly a dozen of us concerning what had happened earlier in the evening. I undoubtedly added to the joking, however, I never proclaimed to any rangers that I would repeat my actions. I did not, nor have I ever, plotted or schemed to light fires in Joshua Tree National Park.

Using the the National Park Service's misinformation as a source, Aspen's daily newspaper, proclaimed in a front-page story and headline that I'd been convicted of “felony arson” and vandalism. That simply isn't true, but I am now viewed by acquaintances and within the climbing community as a convicted felon vandal and arsonist.

The fact is that I was charged with, and plead guilty to, a misdemeanor charge offense of “disposing of smoldering or lit material in a manner to create a public safety hazard.” -- not arson or vandalism as the Park Service press release states. The arson allegation belongs with more serious fire setters -- torching buildings, and trying to collect insurance money.

I did not attempt to flee, or run away from the rangers. After lighting the white gas (which was on a 10-foot tall block, high above the campground and far away from endangering anyone or any vegetation), I went down the rock slab and was immediately apprehended by two rangers. There was no pursuit, nor was I handcuffed or taken to jail.

I received my ticket which required me to return to the Park sometime later for disposition. I was ticketed for “disposing of smoldering or lit material in a manner to create a public safety hazard,” and it was to that charge I plead guilty to a Class B misdemeanor on April 4.

My actions on New Year's Eve have taken me from a job that I truly loved. That's my fault, and my responsibility. I do not seek forgiveness, for my actions. but only ask that the truth, not exaggerations and falsehoods, be known. Eventually It is important for my side of the story to be acknowledged. I hope to will work to rebuild my reputation and my standing in the climbing community. Until then, my greatest regrets have to be my actions, any harm I might may have caused to the National Park for my error in judgment, and the public perception that I do not love and respect the for outdoors in which I have made, and hope to continue, my career."

SNEWS View: It's a shame Thesenga chose not to comment earlier, when he could have corrected many of the inaccuracies presented in the National Park Service Daily Report that stated Thesenga had been convicted of arson and vandalism in the park. As a journalist himself, Thesenga had to know that by not commenting, he left his fellow journalists no choice but to report the only facts they knew and could confirm from interviewing as many sources as possible. The fact is, Thesenga was cited only for a Class B misdemeanor "36 CFR 2.13.(a)(5) -- Lighted or smoldering material discarded in such a manner to create a public safety hazard," and not actually convicted of arson or vandalism. The misdemeanor conviction is a serious matter regardless.

Thesenga is a talented journalist and editor who placed himself in a position to suffer an egregious lapse in judgment that cost him his job, damaged his reputation and hurt many of his fellow climbers. What still surprises us is that he does not appear yet to understand that as the editor of Climbing magazine, he should expect to be held to a higher standard and that he would be judged and scrutinized and remembered by any action he took -- good or bad. It is both the blessing and the curse of such recognition as a leader of a leading climbing voice for the climbing world.

All this aside, it is time for the industry and our fellow press to allow Thesenga the opportunity to pick up the pieces of his life, and extend a hand of forgivness in the process. We think Thesenga has now learned, all too well, that by your actions you will be judged. May his future actions garner him praise rather than ridicule.


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