"Destructive recreation" on our public forests.
Forest Service investigator Charlie Mook, working out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, recalls the incident. "This bunch had dug four trenches 15 to 60 yards long," he says. "They had probes, shovels, and hand tools, and had been probing the sides of the trenches. They knew what they were doing."
The rangers staked out the area and caught the culprits. The guilty parties were fined, and the judge awarded the Forest Service the $25,000 backhoe to use in forest work.
Vandalism on our public forests takes many forms. Destruction of archaeological sites is considered to be among the least forgivable. That was satisfying," continued Mook. "I consider pot hunting' to be the worst kind of vandalism. The estimated damage to the site was over $12,000, but that doesn't count the historical value that can't be replaced."
Ed Few, the Forest Service's branch chief of Law Enforcement Operations in Washington, DC, says that the agency is particularly concerned about this kind of vandalism. "Archaeological sites are highly sensitive," he says. If somebody tears down an outhouse or some picnic tables at a campground, we can rebuild them. It costs the taxpayers money, but it is repairable. But archaeological resources are not repairable. We take that very seriously."
Unlike vandalism of archaeological sites, where the motives go beyond pure destruction, other kinds of vandalism are harder to understand. Recently, a new handicapped-accessible toilet was installed in the Lower Salt River Recreation Area near Phoenix. "We were very proud of the new facility," recalls Joyce Hassell of the Tonto National Forest. "It was finished just a few days before the major recreational season opened, and it hadn't been out there more than a day or two before somebody blew it up with dynamite."
Maybe this wasn't the most expensive act of vandalism the Tonto rangers have encountered, but it was one of the most frustrating for them.
As anyone who has used our national forests or other public campgrounds knows, vandalism is a major problem. Virtually every one of our public forests undergoes a constant low level of damage, including such destructive acts as cutting trees for firewood, throwing trash under bushes, and spray painting of practically everything.
But where littering and woodcutting were once considered to be major problems, today the "war" has escalated. Damage will frequently include signs destroyed, traffic barriers uprooted or burned, fences cut, lids torn off toilets, buildings burned, soil erosion caused by ATCs (All Terrain Cycles), defacing of trees and rocks, toilets riddled with bullets, destruction of native American burial sites (commonly called "pot hunting"), and more.
A recent study of a number of park and recreation agencies in southern California shows that littering is the most costly problem, but littering is not considered vandalism. Researchers term these kinds of casual acts depreciative behavior, as opposed to deliberately destructive vandalism. The most costly forms of true vandalism are destruction of signs, spray painting, dumping of debris, and off-road vehicle use, in that order.
Destruction of signs has become a normal occurrence in many areas, especially the more remote campgrounds. Signs are stolen, defaced, run over, shot to pieces, and used as firewood. Pat Velasco, fire management officer for the Payson Ranger District, Tonto National Forest, and 26-year Forest Service veteran, recalls that 25 years ago a wooden sign would last until it faded from the sun, "unless the bears ate it."
Some of those signs remained in use 25 to 50 years. Now a legible five-year-old sign is unusual. In many areas two years is the average lifetime of a sign, and many survive only a few days. The Forest Service shield seems to be popular with collectors and often disappears soon after installation. Many forests are replacing wooden signs with ones constructed of heavy steel to resist gunshots.
The second most costly form of vandalism in national forests is spray-painted graffiti. Few of the painters are caught in the act. Usually all that can be done is to repair the damage by repainting buildings and sandblasting rocks as soon as possible in order to deter others from adding to the painted areas.
The problem is especially severe in the Angeles National Forest where street gangs from the Los Angeles area congregate. Yet the incidence of new graffiti appearing there has decreased, in the opinion of Ed Gilliam, forest engineer. The secret is a major eradication program the staff recently instituted. As Gilliam says: "If you can keep it cleaned off, they don't put so much on."
Yet the Angeles still suffers frequent damage to toilets, picnic tables, and other structures, he says, including "people throwing everything in the picnic grounds into campfires. There seems to be more damage to toilets than to other buildings, but that is because the vandalism mostly happens at night and in the more remote areas. The only facilities available there are picnic tables, toilets, and fire rings. There's not much they can do to concrete and stone fire rings, so they go after the tables and toilets."
The Tonto's Pat Velasco has seen the condition of recreation areas deteriorate over the years. In his opinion illegal dumping is a major problem that goes well beyond everyday littering. "Some of the nearby homeowners will haul in old furniture, even water heaters and refrigerators, and dump them," he says. "There are contractors who dump truckloads of broken concrete or drywall or old carpeting, which may take hundreds of years to disintegrate. It makes some of our camping areas look like town dumps."
Apparently the dumpers aren't aware of the anger that many of the rangers feel when faced with a new pile of trash. Velasco adds, "When I find a pile of garbage, I get in there and dig around for names. I have caught a lot of dumpers that way."
A pressing issue for the rangers on Arizona's national forests is protection of riparian, or streamside, areas. In addition to being critical to the survival of wildlife, stream-banks also provide shade and water access for recreationists. In many recreational areas it has become necessary to install traffic barriers to keep vehicles out of camping and riparian areas.
But keeping modern ORVs (Off-Road Vehicles) out of closed areas is no simple task. Often the traffic barriers are made of railroad ties buried on end. But if it is possible to winch them out, saw or burn them, some people apparently feel that it's their right to do so, regardless of property damage and environmental degradation.
In some areas the rangers avoid wooden barriers entirely. Instead, a tractor is used to bury boulders, but even they will be dug and winched out of the ground if they aren't buried at least halfway.
Increasingly, vandalism is being attributed to the drivers of ORVs, especially ATCs. In one case, for instance, the Tonto's Payson Ranger District lost a someone who wrapped a cable around the building and tightened their vehicle's winch until the toilet facility was literally cut in two.
Indiscriminate use of guns is becoming a major concern in some areas. The back roads are particularly troublesome-people sometimes drive along and fire at signs and other available targets.
Rod Byers, recreation officer for the Tonto's Payson Ranger District, expresses concerns beyond the costs and aesthetic impacts: "Some of these things are flat-out dangerous. The public is at risk. We have had people drive by and fire bullets through the toilets. These folks don't have any idea whether there is somebody inside. It's sheer luck that no one has been killed or injured, but we're afraid that it's just a matter of time."
Serious problems, even beyond vandalism and indiscriminate shooting, are beginning to plague many of the forests. The Angeles, for instance, logged 24 arson fires damaging a total of 1,321 acres during the first eight months of 1990. Although the forest staff believes that many of the fires were set by the same person, nobody has been caught.
A recent incident on the Angeles, in which a booby trap made of seven sharpened sticks inserted in a plywood disc was found in a campground, indicates that some incidents are passing beyond vandalism and approaching terrorism. Many forests are experiencing escalated problems associated with the growing of marijuana crops, and so staff members are having to face traps ranging from antipersonnel bombs to fish hooks hidden in the vegetation.
Though some damage is done during the daytime, most campground vandalism occurs at night and when no one is around. It occurs infrequently enough that the vandals are hard to catch.
Ed Few, the Forest Service's "Top Cop," points out that the service is poorly equipped to police the areas under its jurisdiction. "We have fewer than 1,000 law-enforcement people nationwide to manage 191 million acres," he says. "It's a big ranch." But Few adds that the agency often has cooperative agreements with other law-enforcement agencies, and those agreements help expand coverage of the forestlands.
The rangers generally haven't had much luck in catching vandals, and those who are caught are seldom issued warnings. Instead, they can expect to pay a fine or appear before a federal magistrate who will be asked to give them the maximum penalty, which for most misdemeanor offenses can be a fine of up to $500 and / or six months in jail. The rangers also ask the judge to order payment of the cost of repairs or replacement.
Most people are charge with petty offenses, however, and are given little or no penalty and -- fines under $100. But in some cases the punishment goes beyond a small fine. On Minnesota's Superior National Forest, for instance, vandals were ordered to repair damaged structures or pay to have them repaired if they cannot do it themselves.
In some cases a community-service sentence is added to the criminal charges. Chet Lonczak, special agent on the Superior Forest, says: "In lieu of collecting the maximum fine of $500, we may ask the magistrate to fine the culprit $200 and have him serve a week of community-service work. Then we put him to cleaning up an area or painting picnic tables or some job related to the violation he committed."
Many forest personnel believe that the most effective control for all types of vandalism is for penalties to be increased and for judges to be less tolerant. The staff feel that the vandals, even when caught, are not being punished at a level suitable to the cost of their crime. Examples are needed to get the public to take the laws seriously.
Some judges are indeed handing down stiff sentences. If the act was obviously deliberate--as in shooting up a sign--then the vandal is often sharply penalized. Whenever possible, an attempt is made to confiscate personal property in addition to the usually small fines and rare jail sentences. In recent years the Tonto has benefited from confiscation of the backhoe mentioned above and a customized four-wheel-drive pickup, both of which are in use today.
Some of the forests have found that one of the most effective means of controlling vandalism is the use of volunteer campground hosts." These are usually retired couples who stay at the campgrounds for extended periods as caretakers. They assign camping sites, answer questions, do light maintenance, and report disturbances, usually by radio, to Forest Service staff. Many forest personnel believe that major vandalism is controlled best by the presence of campground hosts.
Why do vandals do it? No one seems to have an answer. There is little understanding as to the satisfaction that property destruction brings to the vandal or why it happens, other than that it is usually done as a form of protest against authority.
Chet Lonczak believes that some of the vandalism amounts to retaliation against Forest Service policies. "That happens a lot here in the Superior, especially in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area," he says. "Some people are just not receptive to the existing rules and regulations."
Interviews with staff members at several other forests, however, show that few think there is a significant amount of vandalism directed specifically at the Forest Service.
Lonczak and other Forest Service staff around the country say that most damage is done as a result of drinking, partying, or showing off. The literature suggests that most of the negative environmental impacts are due to behavior by people acting out of ignorance.
Though most rangers see destruction of signs and spray-painting as their most important problems, Dale Dunshie, law-enforcement coordinator for Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest, would include a third: "We have a problem with vandalism of personal vehicles and camping equipment. Visitors park in designated parking areas, and when they come back, their vehicles or camping equipment have been vandalized. People find wheels taken off their cars, windows broken, cameras and other things stolen." This problem is sometimes mentioned by rangers on other forests, but not as a major item.
Vandalism and the theft often associated with it are costly items in the budgets of national forests. Apparently no one knows the total costs of repairing vandalism, since they fall under the budgets for general maintenance. Indications are, however, that it costs the Forest Service--and thus you and me--a bundle.
For instance, Angeles National Forest records show that for the year 1986 there were 3,237 incidents of property damage with an estimated total cost of $95,066, and an estimated $227,157 worth of government property was stolen. In 1987, the latest year for which figures are available, there were 5,138 incidents amounting to a total estimated value of $153,929, and the value of stolen government property amounted to $286,268.
Each ranger district can recount numerous cases of expensive maintenance and repair. The Angeles, for example, recently spent nearly $22,000 to rebuild a campground only to have it demolished and burned three days later. The Angeles also reports that 26 of its 58 campgrounds have been closed because of lack of funds, partially due to costly repairs of vandal-caused damage.
Is the rate of vandalism increasing? The answer varies from one forest to another. Wayne Miller, regional special agent for Region 8 in Atlanta, which includes 15 national forests, and Dale Dunshie of the Allegheny National Forest see vandalism as a generally increasing problem
Miller points out, "Every one of our forests is within a relatively easy drive of a growing metropolitan area. The forests, particularly in the South, are used by greater numbers of people each year, and we're getting the good as well as the bad that come with those numbers. The overall level is increasing, but I think the rate is about the same."
Some other forest staff see the problem as remaining fairly steady or declining slightly. Ed Few says: "In the 30-some years I've worked for the Forest Service, it's been my impression that most people treat the National Forest System with a lot of respect. They take care of those lands as best they can when they're visiting. It's almost a reverence. The national wild lands are limited in amount, and people realize they have to tread softly"
Then," he adds, "there are a few people who use the public lands-not just national forests but any public lands-and feel the need to break and destroy. But I've not seen any great trends one way or the other."
Forest personnel are unable to pinpoint a type of person or a kind of activity that is regularly associated with vandalism. Informally, they will say that the average vandal is an urban male in his late teens or early 20s, that most major acts occur in remote locations at night, and that drinking is usually involved.
Undocumented interviews with apprehended vandals show that they don't seem to think they're running any risk of getting caught, and if they are caught, they don't think they will be penalized. Some say they consider the forests to be places where they can do anything they want.
Joyce Hassell observes that "in a lot of cases what we've done doesn't really stop the activity; it just makes it more difficult for the perpetrator to cause the kind of damage he hopes for. We make the facilities as vandal-resistant as possible. Instead of putting out a nicely designed, comfortable toilet, we put out an upended concrete culvert. Or we use heavy steel for signs rather than wood. It's not nearly as attractive, but it's pretty vandal-proof."
She adds, however, Unfortunately, we end up punishing the majority of the people in order to protect the facilities against a very small but destructive minority"
In some cases the rangers are reevaluating whether vandalism is as serious a problem as was previously thought. Some suggest that they may be over-reacting. Smashed signs and dynamited toilets, in fact, have been accepted by many in the Forest Service as routine events.
The surprising conclusion may be that vandalism has become a recreational experience that some of today's public actually expect to be available to them. Sad but true: To some people vandalism has become a sport ! VANDALISM IN THE NAME OF RELIGION
"Remember the Harmonic Convergence of four years ago? Remember the New Agers who believed August 16-17, 1987, marked the dawn of a new era of positive energy? The forest rangers of Arizopia's Coconino National Forest remember them well.
The rangers are upset by the thousands of New Agers who have been appearing at the 2.8-million-acre forest each summer and moving rocks around to form giant medicine wheels. Describing the wheels as focal points for prayer, the New Agers have built creations as big as 200 feet in diameter.
The rangers are tired of putting the rocks back. They can't ticket the wheel builders, as they would vandals, because the New Agers are claiming the protection of religious freedom. Says one, "Nature is a temple to us, and the medicine wheel, a sacred hoop, is the reawakening of this Native American wisdom."
At one popular site, rangers dismantle medicine wheels at the rate of 20 a week.
Wrote Charles Leerhsen in NEWSWEEK, "The rangers' position is that the New Agers don't have both auras in the water when they talk about religious liberty." Ranger Dirch Foreman maintains that wheel building is a half-baked notion "imported by white wanna-be-Indians."
Bob Gillies, a Coconino district ranger, adds, If it's OK to move those rocks around, then comebody else could chop down a tree and make a big cross on the side of a hill. Disturbing any kind of natural feature is a selfish thing to do-like carving your initials in a tree."
Playing their trump card, the rangers wonder how those who claim to seek a oneness with the earth can bring themselves to violate the primary wilderness rule: Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
For now, however, the rangers seem to have arrived at a compromise. They arc leaving one big wheel ill hopes that the New Agers will gravitate there and stay out of Coconino's other meadows.
New Agers counter that they present less of an environmental hazard than will a campground the Forest Service wants to build near pristine Oak Creek. And so it goes on the Coconino.
-- NORAH DEAKIN DAVIS
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article; vandalism|
|Author:||Harris, Glenn D.|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1991|
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