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On April 4, Climbing magazine Editor Jonathan Thesenga and Erin Whorton were convicted of arson and vandalism according to the National Park Service, for an incident that occured New Year’s Eve 2002 at Joshua Tree National Park.
The following account of the events leading up to Thesenga’s conviction and the conviction itself appeared in the April 15 edition of The Morning Report, an official publication of the Ranger Activities Division of the National Park Service:
“Joshua Tree NP has historically been a popular gathering spot for outdoor enthusiasts during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. During the 2002 holiday, all park campgrounds and facilities were full. While patrolling the Hidden Valley campground after dark on New Year’s Eve, rangers Tim Bertrand and Scott Fischer saw two people on a rock formation above the campground. After hearing the distinctive sound of a tin white gas container hitting the rock, they observed a large fire erupt on the face of the formation. When they identified themselves to the pair, both fled from the area. The rangers apprehended them as they climbed down the back of the formation. They were subsequently identified as Jonathan Thesenga and Erin Whorton. Both were cited for arson, with mandatory court appearances stipulated. Later in the evening, the two rangers were again patrolling the campground. They came across a site with a large fire and several people talking loudly. As the rangers approached the site, they recognized Thesenga and Whorton. Thesenga made several statements indicating that he had no remorse or understanding of what he had done. He stated several times that he planned on doing the same thing next year, and the (sic) he would also light several other fires. Thesenga also said that “as the editor,” he was not supposed to do things like this. Several days later, the rangers discovered that Thesenga was the senior editor (sic) for Climbing Magazine, one of the top two publications on rock climbing. On April 4th, Thesenga and Whorton appeared in federal court. They appeared separately in front of the magistrate, and each pled guilty. Thesenga showed no remorse and did not apologize for his actions to the court. He was sentenced to five years’ unsupervised probation, banned from entering the park for five years, and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. The court also required him to provide copies of the rangers’ report and the court proceedings to his employer and the magazine’s owner, the Primedia Corporation. Whorton showed remorse and apologized to the court and to the park staff present for her actions. She was sentenced to a $500 fine and three years’ unsupervised probation and banned from entering the park for a period of three years.”
The fallout and email blitz that developed following the publication of the above report amazed even SNEWS. It became very clear that the climbing community was enraged and offended.
SNEWS contacted Steve Matous of the Access Fund immediately for comment and on April 16, The Access Fund issued the following statement regarding the events:
“As members of the climbing community and in Thesenga’s case, a leading member, we at the Access Fund are very disappointed and condemn their actions. The Access Fund wants to assure the public that these individuals are in no way representative of the climbing community. The mission of the Access Fund is to promote reasonable use and stewardship of public and private land; therefore we would like all our members, partners and the climbing community to know we believe the incident was inappropriate, immature and destructive.
The Access Fund has had a long partnership with Climbing magazine and has worked closely with them over the years. We have always felt that the publication and its founders had set high standards in the climbing arena both ethically and environmentally. Together, we have worked to forward the stewardship of the land in order to keep climbing areas open and to protect the environment that we all cherish. As a result, we feel that it’s important that the irresponsible acts of an individual be separated from the standards of the organization.
We hope to quickly move past this incident and continue focusing time and resources to supporting our mission. The Access Fund has worked diligently for the past 13 years to build relationships with landowners. Stewardship of the resource is a cornerstone of our mission. Recently, the NPS acknowledged our efforts when the Alaskan Region of the NPS awarded us the “Excellence Award for Resources Stewardship” in 2002.
Finally, we encourage all members of the climbing community to set a positive example when using public or private land — be considerate to others and leave the area in better shape than how you found it.”
SNEWS also contacted Norb Garrett, publisher of Primedia’s Action Sports Group, which includes Climbing and Canoe & Kayak magazine. Garrett informed us that he had just learned of the allegations and was conducting its own internal investigation. Within 24 hours, the company issued the following April 16 statement to SNEWS
“Yesterday details of an incident and charges involving Climbing magazine editor Jonathan Thesenga and the National Park Service in Joshua Tree National Park first came to the attention of Climbing’s management team.
We immediately undertook action and conducted an internal investigation. Based on the results of those efforts, Climbing magazine this morning terminated Thesenga’s employment effective immediately. A successor will be named later.
For 33 years Climbing’s editorial content has been a constant refrain to climbers to act as environmental stewards. We have encouraged the climbing community to employ minimum impact climbing practices, and have strived as employees and representatives of Climbing and the community to maintain even higher standards for ourselves. Violations of that obligation are dealt with swiftly and deliberately.
Climbing magazine has supported the Access Fund since its inception in 1989, through financial sponsorship, marketing assistance, and editorial coverage of their efforts. Climbing’s long-time editor, publisher, former owner and current editorial consultant, Michael Kennedy, served as a volunteer on the Access Fund board of directors from 1993 through 2002 and as Access Fund president in 1999 and 2000.
Climbing magazine supported climbing specific efforts of the Conservation Alliance with corporate sponsorship from 1992 through 1998. And more recently, the magazine has supported the Utah Open Lands’ Castleton Tower Preservation Initiative, a community and industry supported effort to save Castle Valley from development. Environmental awareness and activism are the core tenets of Climbing’s philosophy — past, present and future.”
Thesenga was unavailable for comment.
SNEWS View: This is a sad day for all. And, at the same time, there is irony in the timing of this conviction. It comes at the same time as Thesenga’s editorial in the most recent issue of Climbing with a headline: “Ropeless and clueless.” He talks about climbing in Joshua Tree. Though his topic is on the responsibilities of climbing free, his editorial comments ring hollow when draped now with the mantle of this conviction for a completely clueless act.
Thesenga editorializes that, “we were stupid beyond belief.” We’d suggest he change that phrase to the singular and present tense: “I am stupid beyond belief.” He further states that “Climbing does have a duty to warn and educate readersâ€¦” Apparently that does not apply to actually setting an example for others to follow.
It’s Thesenga’s close in the editorial that rings most hollow though, “â€¦make your choice for the right reasons.” Thesenga hasn’t demonstrated he can make the right choice since illegally lighting fires in Joshua Tree on New Year’s Eve. He should have come clean immediately. He could have used the magazine he was an editor for as a platform to editorialize on consequences and making amends for choices poorly made in life. He could have showed leadership by publicly stating that what he did was egregiously wrong and hurtful to a community he represented as the editor of a respected magazine. Instead, he chose to face the truth of his actions only in court and with no apologies offered.
To be fair, a few individuals we have spoken with who thought they knew Thesenga quite well told us they are stunned by his actions. They describe Thesenga as bright, articulate, inspired, a gifted writer, a strong editorial leader. Which makes Thesenga’s choice to act in a manner that even the most tolerable or lenient judge of character would have to dub as extremely irresponsible, even more puzzling.
We hope and pray Thesenga has a change of heart soon, and after some soul-searching reflection, makes the decision to use the incident as a building block upon which to craft a foundation of healing and opportunity for others to learn from his mistakes. If he does that, he will have finally begun to demonstrate that he can do as he has preached and that’s to make a “choice for the right reasons.”