It’s early morning at Sand Flats Recreation Area as a small group of people makes their way over sandstone and brush. Usually, visitors to Sand Flats bring their mountain bikes or off-road vehicles. They’re recreators in search of the internationally famous trails over slick rock. But this particular group of people - walking with notebooks and sturdy shoes - is searching out something else.
"I’m Andrea Brand, I’m the director at the Sand Flats Recreation Area." "Susan Baril, retired law enforcement and now full-time volunteer." "Don Montoya, retired archeologist."
The trio finds what they’re looking for – a panel of rock with clear evidence of regional history. Both Baril and Montoya have worked for years removing graffiti on public lands, and this particular panel - well, is becoming overrun.
The historic writing reads A.C. Montaño Canjilon, N. Mexico. The group speculates about his place in the region’s history roughly a century ago.
But nearly crowding out Montaño’s panel, are other markings scratched haphazardly next to and in some cases over his name. Letters spelling out dXB, the name Jordan in all capital letters, and what appears to be a rudimentary marijuana leaf. It’s graffiti.
"For us today, this gentleman here was probably doing something before the area was very settled," Brail said. "And he was probably a cattleman, a ranchman. Somewhere through here that left us something historical for us to find out. People today that are coming and writing their names on the wall – we have all sorts of other ways now to express who we are. We don’t have to write on the rocks anymore. And so my feeling is – you can send an email to a friend with a picture of yourself standing next to a rock. You don’t have to put your name on it. You’ve got all these other elements now that you can use that at your disposal that these people did not have. And so there’s a real difference in that."
In spite of these almost infinite ways to communicate – people continue to vandalize public lands. Officials say it’s just getting worse as visitation rises across the region. Some of these incidents make headlines, especially when they’re downright egregious. The Idaho man who last year scratched a heart along with his and his wife’s initials into the side of the iconic Corona Arch. Or this June at Capitol Reef National Monument, when rangers found the image of an eye deeply gouged into the sandstone at Temple of the Moon monolith.
It’s happening all over – and it’s happening to precious history – to petroglyphs created by Indigenous people thousands of years ago, to geologic formations shaped by nature over millions.
"I would say it’s gone up exponentially within the last 10 or 15 years," Montoya said. "And quite honestly I think it has to do with two things – increased visitation and unfortunately, the witness of that is social media. Because we find instances where people will leave their inscription, stand next to it, take a selfie and post it on Instagram or Facebook or something like that. So I’d say with increased visitation and social media we’ve seen an exponential rise in graffiti and vandalism."
More people, more incidents. At the National Parks and monuments around Moab, visitation has absolutely climbed. 1.6 million people visited Arches alone in 2018. That same year, the park service documented 49 incidents of graffiti between Arches, Canyonlands and Natural Bridges. Nine of those incidents impacted archeological resources, and eight impacted geologic features like arches and springs. An NPS archeologist told me they know these numbers barely scratch the surface of what’s actually happening on public lands.
"In fact, Don and I have actually cleaned graffiti on just about every." Baril said, "from National Parks to State Parks, to BLM land here, to even SITLA land. So, every portion of our land out here has been affected.
"Even sites that are on the National Register of Historic Places," Montoya said.
"And that was around some rock art, right?" asked Andrea Brand.
"That was at the Sego Canyon National Register site," he replied. "So that was mitigation for rock art damage."
Local experts and volunteers tell me they feel like they’re chasing their tails – you finally fix one injury and it feels as if three more appear. They understand that their effort and dedication is necessary to protect public lands. But, they tell me what we really need is a change in behavior.
"And when people came to visit – when they first looked at Moab in coming here to visit – was it really on their agenda to come deface a rock?" Barils said. "Or was their agenda to come explore this country like everybody else did? And I would imagine their agenda was like everybody else’s to come and explore and be a part of this. And it really probably wasn’t until they got here, and they probably saw where somebody else wrote something, and they decided to leave a mark. It’s really not necessary. You don’t need to do this. And this is not what you came to look at yourself so why would you do that? So the key is just don’t do it. And leave the beauty as it is."