Sen. Larry Craig may have jumped the gun in his vociferous defense of race-car champion Bobby Unser, who is being prosecuted for violating the Wilderness Act during a near-fatal snowmobile trip in December.
U.S. Forest Service officials said Wednesday they have ample evidence that Unser was well-aware that he was violating the law when he entered the South San Juan Wilderness on Dec. 20 on a snowmobile.
“He knew exactly where he was,” said Jim Webb, forest supervisor of the San Juan National Forest.
Unser reportedly has a reputation in the area as being an avid snowmobiler with little use for wilderness boundaries. He has snowmobiled in the area for years.
“Bobby Unser is like an outlaw, an outlaw biker,” said outfitter Dick Ray of Pagosa Springs, Colo. “Your senator is way, way off base. He doesn’t have his facts.”
The 63-year-old Unser, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1968, 1975 and 1981, spent two nights in the mountainous region along the Colorado and New Mexico border with friend Robert Grayton, 36, after both snowmobiles had become disabled in the backcountry.
The trip had started from Unser’s ranch in Chama, N.M., about six miles south of the Colorado state line. The snowmobile trip ended when the machines broke down inside the wilderness boundaries in Colorado.
The two men endured subzero temperatures and high winds during their 14-mile trek to safety.
When the Forest Service cited Unser for violating the Wilderness Act, a crime that’s punishable by a $5,000 fine or six months in jail, Craig was outraged.
He and two other congressmen wrote the chief of the Forest Service demanding an explanation.
“He was lost in a blizzard,” Mike Frandsen, the senator’s spokesman, said Wednesday. Craig said the agency should put the well-being of people ahead of “strict adherence to policy.”
Unser claims that blizzard conditions contributed to the fact that he strayed into a wilderness area. But National Weather Service records indicate that Dec. 20 didn’t have a trace of new snow in that area.
In fact, the snow pack diminished that weekend. A snowstorm moved in Monday, after Unser was out of the woods.
Forest supervisor Webb said he was out of town when he heard about the Unser incident.
On his return, “I checked to see if he was in the San Juan (Wilderness) because of his reputation,” Webb said.
Webb said his office has received dozens of calls in support of the agency’s decision to prosecute Unser, and he confirmed a report that one woman was sharing evidence - including photographs - of a previous snowmobile trip into the wilderness with Unser.
Unser also allegedly has bragged that he could outrun Forest Service agents because of his fast snowmobiles, a claim that Webb didn’t deny.
“We don’t intend to try Mr. Unser in the press,” Webb said, explaining his reluctance to share details. “There’s more to the story, much more.”
Frandsen said the main reason for Craig’s letter to the head of the agency was to get more information about the incident. Attempts to reach Unser Wednesday at his Chama ranch were unsuccessful.