Karen Garthwait would never barge into a stranger’s home and scrawl her name on that person’s living room wall. Yet whenever she’s out in her virtual backyard at Arches National Park, the supervisory park ranger almost invariably finds something similar marring its spectacular landscapes.
One of the latest and most extreme examples can still be found at the park’s Frame Arch, where someone recently etched the words “STATEN 2016” and “ANDERSEN 16” into the fragile sandstone wall.
Judging by the depth of the markings, Garthwait estimates that it took the vandal – or vandals – at least an hour to do their worst, perhaps with a set of keys or other sharp objects. The engravings are just above the main trail to Delicate Arch before it rounds the final curve, so she’s hopeful that hikers who witnessed suspicious activity there will come forward with any information that could help the park identify the perpetrators.
Deep Desert Expeditions owner Mike Coronella said he first noticed the damage as he was leading a recent group hike to Delicate Arch, and the sight caused him to gasp in shock.
“It’s the worst (I’ve seen) in a park setting,” he said.
He said he didn’t report it immediately – as he normally would – because he assumed that someone else had already beaten him to it. No one had, and in hindsight, Coronella wonders if people are just hesitant to come forward and report what they saw.
“I keep thinking that somebody saw those guys do that and didn’t say anything, and people really need to be encouraged to speak up,” he said.
A number of the park’s Facebook fans have since speculated that it could be the work of a married couple with those last names. However, the National Park Service emphasizes that its investigation of the incident is ongoing.
The first official park reports of the vandalism sparked outrage on Arches’ Facebook page, with some fans calling for the suspects to face dismemberment, the death penalty and other extreme punishments.
If the park winds up prosecuting any suspects, though, no such punishments are in store for them.
Arches National Park Supervisory Ranger Kevin Moore said the class B misdemeanor offense carries a potential maximum penalty of up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.
“Does that happen in every case? No,” he said.
According to Moore, the weight of any recommended penalties depends on the nature of the incident, as well as the strength of the park’s case against a suspect.
“We have the discretion and the leeway, depending on all the circumstances and variables, to go to the maximum,” he said.
Over the years, he said, the park has established a strong track record working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute act of vandalism, which everyone involved takes seriously.
“We’ve had very good attorneys who are willing to present the best case forward that they can, and I feel very satisfied with the work they’ve done – and the work the court has done, as well,” Moore said.
Garthwait said the agency does its best to moderate the park’s Facebook comments that call for more stringent forms of punishment. But when she sees the passion in their words, she takes it as a sign of just how much visitors love their national parks.
Some might say that those parks are being loved to death.
Every year, park rangers and volunteers spend untold hours cleaning up after vandals who deface National Park Service landscapes, from Arches to Saguaro National Park in Arizona to Joshua Tree National Park in California. The same problem extends far beyond national parks in the West, to public lands that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service, Utah State Parks and other agencies administer.
“We’re all facing this,” she said.
Park rangers and volunteers can’t be everywhere at once, however, and it can be challenging to stay on top of the day-by-day or hour-by-hour acts of vandalism.
As a case in point, Garthwait recently spotted a brand new five-pointed star that someone etched into the Delicate Arch trail in the short time that it took her to hike back down from Frame Arch.
“We went up these very steps, and I think we would have noticed that,” she said. “That’s very fitting.”
With a few splashes of water from her canteen, and the grind of her boots, she’s able to wipe out any signs of that particular graffiti. It isn’t always that easy to eradicate, but as a rule, park rangers or volunteers will get around to vandalized areas as soon as they first notice them.
“If you leave it there, we have found that graffiti breeds more graffiti,” Garthwait said.
The park’s Sand Dune Arch was so badly damaged, she said, that crews had to mechanically resurface the sandstone. In an even more extreme case, crews demolished a blighted boulder at Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky District.
In places free of darker-colored desert varnish, crews can abrade the surface of the rock to minimize or remove signs of human-caused damage. In other cases, matching pigments might be an appropriate fix, although Garthwait said that approach doesn’t always work.
Park service officials ultimately hope to get through to visitors with a seemingly simple message: “Don’t mark the rock.”
They plaster it across the front page of the park newsletters that visitors receive at the main entrance, and they post it on signs at each trailhead. It also appears in park maps and on Arches’ main website, although Garthwait has found that some visitors just aren’t paying attention to the points that officials are trying to convey.
“Quite often, they haven’t looked at the newspapers or the signs because they’re focused on getting to where they want to hike,” she said.
Perhaps the easiest way to get that point across comes when she catches people in the act.
“From my experience, the best way to intervene in these things is if you’re there in the moment it is happening, and you educate them,” she said.
Usually, she said, the unwitting vandals are contrite, and once they realize what they’ve done, they take that message home with them and let others know that it’s not OK to follow suit.
In cases where Garthwait happens to catch vandals in the act, she’s found that they are not the usual pint-sized suspects that might come to mind.
“It’s not just the kids,” she said. “It’s the whole family drawing together on the rock.”
Coronella said that while local residents typically aren’t at fault in high-profile cases of vandalism, the so-what mentality toward “leave no trace” and “tread lightly” is especially common in other parts of Utah.
“They will find a way to rationalize it, that the rules do not apply to them,” he said.
Coronella said he doesn’t believe that people deface Mother Nature out of a sense of malice, and may just lack a sense of respect.
“To so many people, it’s just a bunch of rocks,” he said. “They don’t understand why anybody would value it beyond that.”
Sure enough, Garthwait says the park usually hears from someone who says they don’t see the harm in graffiti on public lands.
“We almost always hear one or two voices saying, ‘Why is that wrong? The Indians did it; the cowboys did it. Humanity has been marking its territory for the millenia.’”
Her response is usually along the lines of, “Cowboys couldn’t tweet.”
“We didn’t have all the means of communication that we have today,” she said.
To divert potential vandals away from environmentally fragile areas, many well-meaning park visitors have suggested that Arches could designate a “sacrifice rock” where rock etchers and carvers can have at it. The park, however, is dead-set against the idea.
“It just sends the wrong message if you say, ‘Go ahead and do the illegal thing here,’” Garthwait said.
National Park Service seeks tips on suspected April incident
It’s the worst (I’ve seen) in a park setting.
If you have any information about the vandalism at Frame Arch, please contact Arches National Park at 435-719-2100. You can also contact the park via email by visiting its website at https://www.nps.gov/arch/contacts.htm.