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Mesa Verde reports increase in vandalism, graffiti

Park uses social media to raise awareness; investigation continues

Mesa Verde National Park reports increased graffiti along public trails and overlooks, and is using social media to raise awareness of the problem.

Park Superintendent Cliff Spencer on Friday said vandalism occurs every year, but graffiti now is showing up on rock walls and ruins.

“There is so much more of it going on this year compared to past years, so that is a big concern. We posted it on our Facebook page to alert the public and promote prevention,” he said.

In a July 21 Facebook post, the park documented a half-dozen areas where vandals have carved graffiti into sandstone or written their names with charcoal.

In one, six names with a date of June 20 and June 30 were written on the sandstone using prehistoric charcoal that a visitor apparently dug up at an archaeological site along the Petroglyph Point Trail.

“Not only did these individuals vandalize the cliff side, they destroyed archaeological artifacts to do so,” park officials stated in the post.

At another point on the trail, letters and shapes were carved into prehistoric grinding slicks, permanently damaging the artifacts. On the Knife Edge Trail near Morefield Campground, a drawing, names and a heart-and-arrow were etched into sandstone boulders.

Historic stone walls at the park’s numerous overlooks also have been vandalized.

“The graffiti has damaged prehistoric artifacts and also the stone walls built by the Civilian Conservation Corps under the Works Progress Administration,” dating to the 1930s and ’40s, Spencer said.

The park’s Facebook page also warned of a more recent phenomenon in national parks – painted rocks that are placed as part of a social media scavenger hunt. The rocks usually include an organization’s brand that corresponds to a hashtag.

“Leaving these rocks in national parks or on any federal public lands is considered littering and a form of vandalism, is disrespectful and is illegal,” park officials stated in the post. “Under the hot, desert sun, the paint ... to cover these rocks may melt or wear off, causing damage to the natural soils, delicate environment and any wildlife and insects that may ingest or come in contact with it.”

Mesa Verde visitors also have illegally stacked rocks along trails. Rock cairns are sometimes used as legitimate trail markers, but when randomly stacked by visitors, they can be harmful because they might lead people into a dangerous area.

Spencer said the graffiti sites are cleaned up by park staff and volunteers, nicknamed the “Graffiti Busters.”

Social media have helped raise awareness and promote discussion, Spencer said. The Facebook post, which included photos, generated 382 comments and 1,384 shares.

“There has been some very encouraging dialogue by the public on social media, and that is helpful to spread the word that graffiti and vandalism is not acceptable anywhere,” Spencer said. “As we know, the park is a cultural site, with very strong meaning for our Native American tribes and pueblos. This type of behavior damages the history of our area.”

Park officers continue to investigate the vandalism. To deter vandals and catch perpetrators, the park is considering security measures such as increased patrols. Vandals on federal lands face a $5,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

Last year, Casey Nocket pleaded guilty to seven counts of damaging federal property after painting rocks in seven national parks including Canyonlands National Park, Zion National Park and Colorado National Monument. She was sentenced to two years of probation and 200 hours of community service and was banned from federal lands until her sentence was complete.

In October, a group of Fort Lewis College students defaced Native American ruins in the Comb Ridge area near Bluff, Utah, while on an Outdoor Pursuits retreat. Campus authorities learned about the incident when photos surfaced on social media, clearly showing the words “Fort Lewis College OP 2016” on the rock wall of the Fish Mouth Cave in the Butler Wash area.

In the past five years, the Bureau of Land Management has reported a surge of archaeological crimes in southeast Utah. Between October 2011 and April 2016, the BLM field office in Monticello said it investigated 25 cases of looting, vandalism and disturbance of human remains in San Juan County.

Damage and looting occurred at a historic Navajo hogan, a burial site at Butler Wash, a 2,000-year-old pictograph site in Grand Gulch and a prehistoric wall at Monarch Cave. A petroglyph near Bluff was partially removed from a wall with a rock saw and chisel.


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