Wilderness vandalism sparks legislation in Utah, plus a look at what makes a vandal good


Last month, two Utah Boy Scout leaders inadvertently became internet sensations after posting a video of themselves toppling one of the ancient rock formations that gives Goblin Valley State Park its name, then laughing and high-fiving each other. The men, David Hall and Glenn Taylor, said they acted out of concern for public safety, but many of the 4.5 million people who caught a glimpse of their glee on YouTube didn’t buy it. An outcry ensued, and the men were demoted from their leadership roles in the Boy Scouts.

As of this week, however, charges still hadn’t been pressed, because although defacing federal monuments is a federal offense, applicable state laws in Utah are aimed at the destruction of man-made property that can be assigned a financial value, Utah State Parks Director Fred Hayes told the Salt Lake Tribune. Now, in direct response to the goblin-topplers, state Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, is drafting new legislation that would impose stiff fines on people who damage Utah’s natural wonders. The proposed law could go into effect next year.

Legislation may aid prosecutors, but it’s hard to say whether it will deter would-be vandals. A study of High Country News’ archives reveals that wilderness vandalism, particularly in Utah, comes in many forms. There’s the inexcusable, such as the 19-year-old who carved a swastika next to Native American rock art in Utah in 1998, becoming the first wilderness vandal in state history to go to federal prison for his act.

And the inexplicable: one rancher near Kanab had several cows die after someone fenced off their watering hole in the early 1990s. There’s vandalism perpetrated against environmentalists – the desecrated effigy hung from a gate near Canyonlands to intimidate the non-profit Great Old Broads for Wilderness – and vandalism perpetrated by environmentalists (purportedly) – spikes driven into logs awaiting the sawmill after a public-lands timber sale near Capitol Reef National Park in 1994.

Wilderness vandalism isn’t restricted to the Beehive State either: Fines of $10,000 to $15,000 have been issued to tourists who defaced rocks on federally-managed land in Arizona and New Mexico; rangers at Rocky Mountain National Park spend afternoons cleaning graffitied mountainsides; and plants ranging from saguaro cacti to quaking aspen are regularly subject to the carving tools of human beings in search of immortality (as well as their gunshots, as Emily Guerin reports in our upcoming issue). One particularly ludicrous incident stands out in the HCN archives: A former rafting guide in Arizona's Salt River Canyon Wilderness, sick of portaging his clients around a class VI rapid, was charged with bombing it into a more manageable obstacle. Not only did the dynamite turn the powerful falls into a mere trickle, it removed the barrier that had been protecting native fish from non-native species stocked downstream.

But not all wilderness vandalism is necessarily destructive. In Oregon, for example, a group of activists used food coloring to paint a snowy mountainside with a 300-foot-tall dollar sign in 1998 to protest user fees on public lands. (They’re losing that battle: Grand Teton National Park announced new backcountry fees just this week.)

Another example is HCN contributor Michael Branch’s essay, What Would Edward Abbey Do?, which describes a scene of himself and three other men irreverently dislodging a giant, precariously perched boulder in Nevada and "trundling" it into a canyon. Some readers loved Branch’s essay, but others called the act "selfish," "bad karma," “an appalling act of destruction” and worse. One recent reader was “astonished” that HCN would print such blasphemy.

Personally, while I gaped in disbelief at the Boy Scout leaders’ video, I’m all in favor of Branch’s style of trundling. Part of it comes down to the circumstances: An unnamed rock and a few responsible men, rather than a revered piece of geology destroyed in front of kids. But another part is personal experience: Out of the many hours I've spent outdoors ­– hiking, biking, reflecting, being generally quite responsible and picking up other people's trash – one of the best was spent hucking rocks down a rocky bowl in New Zealand.

It started with a small rock, about the size of a basketball. One of the Kiwis I was hiking with nudged it with his toe down toward the lake below. It bounced once – rock crashing against rock with an echoing crack – before landing in the water with an equally satisfying thump. We all stopped in our tracks, smiles tugging at the corners of our mouths. Then someone else picked up a bigger rock, then another, and for a few minutes, the mountain was alive with a resonant, joyous cacophony. It wasn't the noise so much as it was the giddiness of making big splashes and playing outside, and I think such moments – like childhood memories of catching frogs and building dams, of interacting with nature rather than observing it from afar ­– are what forge a lifelong connection to and desire to protect the outdoors.

As for Utah’s new legislation penalizing people who destroy the state’s natural wonders, no one has yet mentioned whether or not it will apply to corporations that want to drill for oil in such places. I hope it will. As we've been reminded, corporations are people too.

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Nov 28, 2013 09:16 AM
Fencing off a water hole is not technically vandalism.

Federal fines and penalties are way too low.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Nov 28, 2013 09:29 AM
Need a new category of award at HCN for most hypocritical story of the year.
Krista Langlois
Krista Langlois Subscriber
Dec 01, 2013 01:20 PM
Hey Robb - I was thinking of the essay below, Look Don't Touch, and the balance between responsibly interacting with nature to foster a connection and being destructive. Would love to discuss more.

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Dec 02, 2013 07:55 AM
As I commented at Michael Branch's essay, I too have trundled, more than once, and similar to your experience it was playfully done. Many people who've spent lots of time in remote areas have trundled at one time or another and it's not so very different from what those scout leaders did.

It's not defacing petroglyphs or poaching, it's not a willful destruction or desecration, but rather a natural enough urge that in retrospect is better not acted on.

We. You, Michael Branch, and I, didn't take a youtube video that went viral. We aren't scout leaders from Mormon Utah. Their thoughtless moment involved rocks precariously balanced in a way that is unusual, ours were simply balanced on the side of a hill. I don't see enough of a difference between what we did and what they did to earn the condemnation of millions.

Article in Orion was a lot of fun. Unscripted interactions with nature are indeed the stuff of lifelong appreciation.
Carolyn Hopper
Carolyn Hopper
Dec 02, 2013 12:10 PM
A friend of mine is now in a wheel chair because someone dislodged rocks from the trail up the mountain from where she was hiking. But if "hucking" rocks is done where there is absolutely no danger of harming another hiker, then I can see the fun. And trundling? Is that moving boulders around where one person would just like to see them? How about the folks who come along after you. If it affects anyone else's enjoyment of a wild place, then that is selfish. If we are going to interact with Nature or in a setting more Natural than tamed, we should not just be thinking of our own experience - other than footprints, is there anything we might have done to cause trail erosion, purposefully deface a tree - with knife or bullet?
What the Scout Leaders did was: set a bad example for youth with a "do whatever you feel like" attitude. They should be fined a very large amount of money - be made examples. They should no longer be in the Boy Scouts.
I can see that boys and girls like to play in the woods/wilderness, but that should be done responsibly. Leave as little trace as possible, take pictures of the flowers instead of leaving dead ones, don't cause wildlife to adapt to you.
And yes, what the mining companies do is much worse. Fortunately there are good folks working against the mass destruction
brian muller
brian muller
Dec 03, 2013 07:16 PM
Does this include unfair practices where federal lands, i.e. the previous area where Lake Powell sits, or where they want to drill for oil and destroy the canyonlands? 200 years from now were not going to wish we'd mined it sooner, just that we had our beautiful lands for the 14 billion people inhabiting the earth.
Franz Amador
Franz Amador Subscriber
Dec 04, 2013 12:26 PM
My son's first grade classmate had his arm broken and his older brother (age 8) killed when teens threw a log off a cliff onto a beach where the boys were sitting.