Graffiti and bullet holes mar a petroglyph panel near Moab. [Photo by Scott Greiner / Moab Sun News]

As more and more visitors document their Moab-area adventures on social media sites, federal land managers are reporting that acts of vandalism at Arches and Canyonlands national parks continue to rise.

According to National Park Service (NPS) data, cases of graffiti on rocks in Arches and Canyonlands national parks this year will likely be twice what they were one year ago.

Michael Rupp, a supervisory park ranger at Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District, said that there have been 40 reported incidents of vandalism to date at the two parks, as well as within Hovenweep National Monument.

Vandalism and the complicated role of social media in outdoor recreation is posing a challenge to Moab-area public land managers. While public lands agencies and visitors have used Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms for years, the immense popularity of the photo-sharing app Instagram is credited with a surge in visitation to outdoor areas nationwide. But with that increased visitation, incidents of vandalism are also on the rise.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spokesperson Lisa Bryant said that while most visitors to the Moab area are “very respectful of these amazing landscapes,” there are rare instances where illegal activities occur.

“Graffiti and vandalism harm natural resources, wildlife habitat and important cultural resources, and impact our ability to understand the people who once lived here, the ancestors of many people alive today,” Bryant added. “These acts are also illegal.”

In March 2019, Tacoma Beast, a company that sells equipment for customizing Toyota Tacoma trucks and creates YouTube content, was filming in in Kane Creek Canyon. A videographer working on the project carved one of the company’s hashtags into a rock. An image of the vandalism was posted on Instagram, where the company has 161,000 followers. 

Outrage among off-road trail and public lands users ensued. Owner Mateo Ianotti later issued an apology via the company’s Instagram account and vowed to use the incident as a learning experience, partnering with the nonprofit organization Tread Lightly! to raise $10,000.

National Park Service spokesperson Angela Richman confirmed that her agency monitors social media in order to learn about incidents of vandalism. 

The number of “influencers” — social-media personalities who often make money endorsing products on sites like Instagram — posting content that depicts damaging behavior on public lands has been the subject of much attention. Popular Instagram accounts like Public Lands Hate You use a strategy of naming and shaming reckless influencers, pointing out abuses of public lands online. 

However, local land managers discourage this strategy, pointing out that the best way to report illegal activity and acts of vandalism is to report problems directly to the National Park Service or the BLM. They say that posting notices on social media sites often gives perpetrators time to delete posts or cover their tracks. 

“Reporting incidents directly is the best way to ensure appropriate action is taken,” Bryant said. “Please do not post on your own social media or report to the news media first, as it can impede our investigation.”

The anonymous owner of Public Lands Hate You says that the account is also moving away from shaming individuals to working to inform users.

“The primary goal of the account is education,” he said in the email. “I recently reposted content from an individual with over 700,000 followers who has repeatedly used drones illegally in our National Parks … I contacted that individual privately, and many others left comments on his content informing him that drones were illegal at NPS sites.”

When the individual in question deleted those comments and chose not to engage, Public Lands Hate You created an educational post designed to spread awareness of rules concerning drones. 

Moving forward, Rupp said that park officials will continue to inform park visitors about how to protect public lands.

“We are actively engaged in many educational pursuits to increase awareness and understanding of park resources, often through social media,” Rupp said.

“We think it’s important for everyone to take an active role in the protection and stewardship of their public lands,” he added.

“Graffiti and vandalism harm natural resources, wildlife habitat and important cultural resources, and impact our ability to understand the people who once lived here, the ancestors of many people alive today. These acts are also illegal.” — Lisa Bryant

Vandalism in the Moab area reveals the complex roles of social media

To report vandalism, call the BLM at 435-259-2100, the National Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch at 888-653-0009, or the Grand County Sheriff’s Office at 435-259-8115.