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.