- Given the popularity of National Parks, Forests, and Monuments, the number of vandals is quite low, but they have an everlasting impact that scars our natural heritage.
- Penalties for vandalism in protected areas can be increased by an act of Congress, but that would only be an effective tactic if it either dissuades people from destroying our heritage or if the culprits are caught and properly penalized.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Could someone explain why torching an unused forest lookout post is a more serious crime than dynamiting a sandstone arch, millions of years old, inside of a National Park? Burning down a federal building can incarcerate you for 20 years; destroying a veteran’s monument could jail you for 10 years; but the willful and intentional vandalism of irreplaceable geological features and landscapes in our National Parks could lock you up for 5 years, if considered a felony, or only 6 months, if deemed a misdemeanor. Painting graffiti on a California freeway sign carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail, along with a $5,000 fine, but defacing unique rock formations with marker pens and acrylic paint in seven National Parks resulted in no monetary fine, and only two years of probation, along with 200 hours of community service.
In September/October 2014, Casey Nockett went on a vandalism spree where she painted a blue-haired profile of a woman’s head on a rock viewpoint overlooking Crater Lake, OR, as well as painting and marking up rock formations at Yosemite National Park, CA, Canyonlands National Park, UT, Rocky Mountains National Park, CO, and elsewhere. Her defense was “It’s art, not vandalism. I am an artist.” She decided to plead guilty to seven misdemeanor charges of “damaging government property” which, along with the above penalties, also resulted in her ban from entering U. S. National Parks during her probation period. The sandblasting and chemicals needed to remove her ‘artwork’ not only come from your tax dollars and mine, but could further damage the delicate rock structures that she thought were a painting easel.
Given the popularity of National Parks, Forests, and Monuments, the number of vandals is quite low, but they have an everlasting impact that scars our natural heritage. The National Park Service has a budget of around $3 billion, and employs some 12-13,000 full-time people to oversee approximately 84,500,000 acres of protected areas, ranging in size from the 0.2 acre Thaddeus Kosciusko National Memorial, PA to the 13,200,000 acre Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve, AK. In 2016, 330,971,689 visitors officially traveled to the National Parks, which was a greater number than the population of the United States in the same year (approximately 325,000,000)! These vast landscapes, and enormous number of guests, are protected by a slim force of NPS Park Rangers. Of all the full-time employees, fewer than 1,500 are specially designated NPS Enforcement Rangers. My sons’ high school had more students. If all of these Park Rangers were equally distributed across the protected regions of our country, then every one of them would be responsible for 56,333 acres, or 88 square miles, an area four times the size of Manhattan Island. These women and men have the gigantic task of not only ensuring our safety in the parks, but of maintaining trails, leading tours, answering questions, giving lectures, and monitoring the flora and fauna of the protected places.
Adding to this list is trying to stop people from permanently destroying our collective property. We own the parks; they belong to all of us.
Fifteen people were murdered in National Park Service areas in 2014. Between 1872 and 2015, a 145-year period, eight people were killed by grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park, MT. Your odds of being killed by a person in a National Park dwarf your odds of being eaten by a grizzly bear.
In 1897, John Muir wrote: “Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones…” Trees are not the only natural feature unable to escape vandals; so are cliffs, boulders, natural arch bridges, and even the ground. What is going on? Tragically, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have returned to extract their toll on us, but in the form of Selfishness, Greed, Irresponsibility, and Disrespect. Fools are destroying not only trees, but unique landscapes that took millions of years to form, at an alarming rate.
Kate Cannon, Superintendent of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, UT, has had first-hand experience with vandalism in her protected realms. In November 2016, she received the Stephen T. Mather Award from the National Parks Conservation Association in recognition of her long-term service, commitment, and devotion to protecting our parks. About six months before the honor was bestowed upon her, Arches National Park was victimized by vandals. At Frame Arch, a stop along the way to Delicate Arch, the 150 million year old formation was gouged out and chiseled with some names and markings. The damage was so extensive that repairs to the pre-existing state are improbable, making the arch an eyesore for the 1.5 million people who visit the park each year. Cannon, following the incident, commented “It’s a small part of a huge problem…[We are experiencing]…a tidal wave” of graffiti and senseless destruction to the wonders of nature.
The epidemic of vandalism for last year alone includes:
- February 2016: The rusty red rocks characteristic of Cocinino National Forest, Sedona, AZ, were desecrated when Actess Vanessa Hudgens and her boyfriend, Austin Butler, carved their names, surrounded by a heart, into the landscape. She paid a $1,000 fine with the funds targeted for erasing and removing her vandalism that ruined the very landscape that the two of them were enjoying. She has a net worth estimated at $10,000,000.
- April 2016: Three completely inebriated men, after shooting some rabbits and tossing around some empty beer bottles, jumped a fence and trespassed into a protected area at Devil’s Hole, Death Valley National Park, CA, where they proceeded to create havoc by churning up the sediment as they trampled through the water refuge housing the only population of an endangered species of pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis). This remnant population numbers only 100-200 individuals during the winter, with April/May the key spawning months. The drunken fools killed at least one pupfish. Killing an endangered species is a federal crime that can result in a fine of $50,000. But, in April 2011, two men were fined only $ 1, plus $500 in legal fees, for killing an endangered whooping crane (Grus americana) in Indiana.
- May 2016: As two people spray painted “Evans 16” on rocks at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, AZ, another visitor photographed them in the act. The picture was shared with the National Park Service, whose Facebook posting was then shared by over 16,000 people. The culprits were identified as a result of the picture sharing. As in the case of Casey Nockett, social media was instrumental in identifying the vandals. Charles Cuvelier, appointed the chief of the National Park Service Division of Law Enforcement, Security, and Emergency Services in 2013, after 20 years of service, remarked on “the important role that the public can play in identifying and sharing evidence of illegal behavior in parks. It is clear that the public cares deeply for the special places that the National Park Service represents.”
- May 2016: Petersburg National Battlefield, VA, a 2,700 acre Civil War site marking the deaths of over 1,000 soldiers during the siege of the Confederate capitol, became pockmarked when vandals ripped up and dug into the hallowed ground in search of ‘collectibles’, such as buttons, bullets, and buckles. The Park Superintendent, Lewis Rogers, called the destruction “disgusting”, as well as “egregious” given that the vandals conducted their rampage just before Memorial Day weekend.
- June 2016: On Chilnualna Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park, CA, a common place for mountain lion sightings, some visitors apparently thought that they were very erudite and clever to paraphrase Julius Cesar by writing “I came, I saw, I vandalized National Park property” on the boulders along the trail. Except that the National Park Service does not really own the property. We do. The National Park Service works on our behalf as the caretakers of the land and the inhabitants.
- June 2016: The Roosevelt Arch, in the Fort Yellowstone National Historic Landmark District, MT was marred when a man carved his initials into the basalt archway. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Yellowstone National Park with conservationist John Burroughs and laid one of the cornerstones to the arch. The top of the archway greets visitors with the declaration “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people“. The vandal was fined $250 and sentenced to three days in jail.
- July 2016: National Park Service Rangers reported 11,000 cases where they had to deal with vandalism, illegal camping, theft, harassment of wildlife, and other infractions at ten popular parks. One visitor reportedly wanted to give a wild grizzly bear a cookie.
- August 2016: Native American petroglyphs at Capitol Reef National Park, UT were ruined by vandals who gouged “Dallas, TX” into the delicate red rocks. Although some vandals equate their rock carving with Native American engravings, others find that the modern-day graffiti is in a completely different category.
- September 2016: The Samuel Colt Mounument, Coltsville National Park, CT, was the victim of theft of the bronze coat-of-arms embedded into the structure. The statues of the firearms manufacturer, and the bronze plate, had been on display for 110 years without incident. In an ironic choice of words, Bert Barnett, National Park Ranger at the site, said that the theft “wounds me something fierce.”
- September 2016: Ten miles of tire tracks were etched into the pristine landscape at Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Monument, CA. The name was neither an invitation to vehicular vandalism nor a West Coast site for ATV racing. The site was named because of a unique combination of geological features and weather patterns. Rain fills the playa deep enough to partly submerge huge boulders weighing as much as 700 pounds. Overnight freezing temperature turns the water to ice, and when the ice thaws and cracks, the rocks and boulders are moved along the ground and etch tracks into the sand. The remote area requires a high clearance 4×4 vehicle to reach, but visitors are not supposed to damage the natural landscape with their monster trucks once they reach their destination.
Last month, along the Hanging Lake Trail, Glenwood Canyon, CO, vandals spray painted rocks and trees at the edges of the trail that was visited by over 135,000 people in Summer 2015. The word “Blest”, sometimes accompanied by an arrow, was painted in red or white on trees, tree stumps, and rocks in a half a dozen locations. The U. S. Forest Service has estimated that the costs of cleanup will be at least $3,000. The Forest Service is also mulling closing the trail until after Memorial Day, when patrols will be re-activated. Along with the graffit, the rangers have had to cope with illegal parking and swimming.
The number of vandalism incidents pales in comparison to the number of visitors who cherish our national refuges and reserves. Penalties for vandalism in protected areas can be increased by an act of Congress, but that would only be an effective tactic if it either dissuades people from destroying our heritage or if the culprits are caught and properly penalized. In some of the above cases, social media had a key role in apprehending the criminals. One need not confront these morons; taking a photo and sharing it with the Park Service is all that is necessary. The Investigative Services Branch of the National Park Service operates all year round, 24/7, and asks that visitors who spot vandalism get in contact by calling, e-mailing, sending a Facebook message, or completing an online tip form (https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1563/contactus.htm). As Jeffrey Olson, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, said, “Vandalism is a violation of the law, and it also damages and sometimes destroys often irreplaceable treasures that belong to all Americans.”
Theodore Roosevelt not only place a cornerstone at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, but also made the point that “Of all the questions which come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” In his opinion, those who “permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature” are as guilty of vandalism as those who commit the crime. We can do what we can prevent the destruction of what is beautiful in nature. Use social media to help stop the epidemic that is ravaging Mother Nature.
In February 1940, the 28 year old Woody Guthrie wrote a song shortly after moving from Oklahoma to New York City. “This Land is Your Land” was not released until 1951, but the melody and chorus are probably known to more people than most other songs written that long ago:
This land is your land…
This land is my land…
This land was made for you and me
This land is our land; the parks, forests, deserts, mountains, reserves, monuments, and wilderness areas are our heritage. Mother Nature is awesome, so let us protect her from those who try to permanently ruin our priceless heritage and her domain.