Not only is the sight of at least 45 graffiti tags painted or carved onto cactus leaves an unsettling sign of urban life creeping into the wilderness. Saguaros grow slowly — some can be 150 years old — and rely on the green skins of their leaves to store chlorophyll, by which they take in nourishment from the sun. People who think it’s “cool” to paint their names on the saguaros’ leaves are in effect starving the cactuses.
A recent increase in graffiti on public lands and national parks in particular may be connected to the rise in the use of social media, says the New York Times. Vandals have not only been damaging precious wildlife and ancient sites, but have then taken photos and posted these on the Internet.
Rangers are also reporting a rise in vandalism in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Utah’s Arches National Park and Joshua Tree in California. “In the old days, people would paint something on a rock — it wouldn’t be till someone else came along that someone would report it and anybody would know about it,” says Lorna Lange, a spokesperson for Joshua Tree. But now people have a way to broadcast their defacement of nature far and wide, and instantly.
Parks have had to close certain areas such as Colorado’s Rattlesnake Canyon, a popular hiking spot, to protect archaeological sites and native art. Cleanup costs to remove graffiti can run into the hundreds and thousands of dollars; it is not that parks whose budgets have already been cut have such extra resources.
Park Rangers and Nature Lovers Know How to Use Social Media, Too
What gets posted on social media sites is out there for anyone, including park rangers and those of us who cherish our parks and the flora and fauna in them, to see as well.
In 2011, two South Korean exchange students visiting El Morro National Monument in New Mexico wrote “Super Duper Dana” and “Gabriel” on Inscription Rock, alongside where 19th-century soldiers and pioneers had etched their names. Rangers did a little detective work in the visitor center sign-in book and found that someone had written “Dana Choi” and “Super Duper Dana Choi” there. They found that Choi and another student, Seung Hoon Oh, had posted pictures of their trip to the park on Facebook. The two students eventually admitted to what they had done, pleaded guilty to violating a federal law protecting archaeological resources and were fined nearly $15,000 each.
Park personnel have also been able to catch vandals via infrared cameras. While these are set up to record wildlife, they have helped officials learn that Beau Campbell and Colton Salazar had chopped up cactuses and left them beside a trail in Coronado National Monument in Arizona. Rangers retrieved photos of the two men from the camera and sent these to websites and Tucson-area news stations, which posted the photos. Campbell and Salazar turned themselves in and have been charged with violating federal law.
These instances of tourists behaving very badly are not, of course, limited to sites in U.S. national parks. The parents of 15-year-old Ding Jinhao from Nanjing in China recently apologized after a photo of the phrase “Ding Jinhao was here” (in Mandarin), etched into a 3,500-year-old relic inside Egypt’s Luxor temple, was posted on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. The image soon went viral, leading to the family’s response and prompting reports of Chinese tourists’ poor manners aboard, to the point that Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang criticized his own citizens for their “uncivilized behavior.”
It is terrible to think that surveillance cameras might have to be installed throughout national parks to protect cactuses, rock formations and other beautiful natural sites from someone’s ugly actions. As the summer vacationing season gets underway, it is not only Chinese travelers who need to know that, wherever you are, “uncivilized behavior” is totally uncalled for and that, yes, there are plenty of us nature lovers out there who are glad to protect our parks and the wildlife in them.
Photo via Seth Sawyers/Flickr