Arches and Zion National Parks are facing a new challenge on top of the COVID-19 pandemic and cyanobacteria in the Virgin River — unprecedented levels of graffiti.
While visitor numbers for all national parks have taken a hit this year, it seems as though a fewer amount of people doesn’t mean fewer impacts on the parks.
Images obtained by the Spectrum of this graffiti show “BLM” and “Trump 2020” scratched into rocks, bright blue spraypaint quotes, names carved into trees and boulders, stickers overtaking signs and handprints covering rock walls.
For Zion, this especially presents a unique challenge as there are large amounts of graffiti in The Narrows, where harmful toxic algae lurk in the river.
“Because of cyanobacteria we’ve decreased patrols, so we’re not getting ahead of it,” Zion Chief Ranger Daniel Fagergren said. “Graffiti begets graffiti, and if you don’t get on that and clean it right away a few names become a dozen.”
From ‘BLM’ to ‘Trump 2020’, graffiti messages are on the rise
The Narrows, Pa’rus Trail, Kayenta Trail and other heavily trafficked areas are most plagued by the graffiti.
In order to protect the rangers and the public, the park is not utilizing volunteers to clean up the graffiti nor are there as many rangers patroling regulated areas as much as they used to.
But, it’s important to note that graffiti is not new in national parks. People have been making their mark on public land for years.
“People were still going up there, start writing their names more prevalently before COVID and cyanobacteria,” Fagergren said. “This has become a more prolific problem.”
Don’t forget, graffiti is a crime.
If caught, a person can be cited, mandatory appearance before the federal magistrate in St. George, which could lead to up to six months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.
While Fagergren said it is hard to catch a person after the graffiti, they do work hard to find the perpetrator and prevent further crime.
But for rangers who live and work in the parks, graffiti is personal.
“It’s so wanton. You don’t have to do that. You can enjoy and appreciate what’s before you without trashing it,” Fagergren said. “There are other ways people can leave their mark on the world that’s not trashing national parks.”
In Arches too?
In all of 2019, Arches experienced 42 substantial incidents of graffiti. But since the end of March, the park has seen 46 incidents.
While the park thinks this is because more rangers are in the field to facilitate coronavirus guidelines, meaning they get noticed more, but still find this trend troubling.
“In a sense, when they do that here in our parks with Balanced Rock or one of our arches they are doing the same thing as forever changing a fragile work of art,” Arches spokesperson Angela Richman wrote in an email.
How do we stop it?
All conservationists and ranger stress that education on how to act on public land and why graffiti is so wrong is the key to stopping it.
For some people, especially those emerging from quarantine and exploring spontaneously, this is their first time in a national park.
“We have seen a demographic shift in a way they never have before,” Zion Forever Communications Manager Zach Almaguer said. “People need to latch on to those messages of education and spread them.”
To remove the graffiti from the stone, rangers have to scrub, wipe and sometimes grind the work off of the rock. This takes away the natural erosion, speeds up the erosion process and changes the look of the area.
More on cyanobacteria: The one day at Zion that killed a family dog
What may seem like a harmless or quick thing to do, the effects of graffiti directly impact the park forever and ruin it for future generations, rangers and conservationists
“I wish there was more we could do,” Associate Director, Southwest Region of the National Park Conservation Association Cory MacNulty said. “The rangers are spread so thin trying to keep the shuttles running, that I think it’s really hard for them to cover all these other places.”
MacNulty also noted that when the parks face a crisis, like COVID-19 or natural disasters or world changes, “they see an uptick in bad behavior. people feel like there’s nobody watching, and ‘we’re going to get away with it.'”
K. Sophie Will is the National Parks Reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News through the Report for America initiative by The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter at @ksophiewill or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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