ST. GEORGE — Officials at Zion National Park are grappling with unprecedented amounts of graffiti throughout the park as visitors continue to flock to the canyon.
These days, besides their normal job description of welcoming visitors, park rangers face the additional challenges of managing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response as well as the presence of a toxic cyanobacteria bloom in the North Fork of the Virgin River, which runs through the park.
The graffiti, which has been found along the popular Narrows hike, the Kayenta Trail and on the West Rim/Angel’s Landing Trail near Scout Lookout is something that Zion’s chief ranger Daniel Fagergren said the park has never seen at this level until this year.
“I have seen more graffiti than I have ever seen before. It’s all over, and we’re trying to get ahead of it,” he said.
Fagergren said that rangers are dealing with a twofold problem as they try to manage the graffiti.
First, the park is seeing a new type of visitor, one who may have never visited a national park before and may only be venturing out as a result of being cooped up due to the pandemic.
“They are different visitors than we normally get,” Fagergren said, adding that many of them don’t have the same affinity for public lands as visitors in the past.
A fair amount of the vandalism has come in the form of visitors carving and scratching names or messages into the rocks.
A video posted to Facebook by Southern Utah resident and Narrows guide Sunny Bodeen showed the extent of the damage on the walls of the Narrows hike.
“There is miles of graffiti all the way up this amazing hike,” Bodeen said in his post. “Graffiti is contagious and so is education, help educate people, be kind and Leave no Trace.”
Fagergren said people have actually caught vandals in the act, but short of following them out of the canyon to get a driver’s license number to report, it is nearly impossible to identify a single person among the thousands of guests that enter Zion National Park each day.
The second problem facing Zion National Park rangers, at least in the Narrows, is the continued presence of cyanobacteria in the Virgin River’s North Fork at a level that park officials have identified as dangerous.
While hiking in the popular Narrows area from the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop remains open to the public at their own risk, Fagergren said they have not been sending rangers up the narrow canyon as often as usual in order to decrease their risk of exposure. He believes having less of a ranger presence in the canyon has “definitely contributed” to the graffiti problem.
In order to remove the damage, park staff and volunteers have to scrub it off, which escalates what should be a natural erosion process.
“It devalues the experience for future guests and destroys the resource,” Fagergren said, adding that the vandalism “flies in the face” of the park mission, which is to “conserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
Fagergren said he didn’t want to appear heavy-handed, but he was quick to point out that vandalism in the park is illegal, and if caught, a person could potentially face a mandatory court appearance, up to six months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.
“We take this very seriously. It’s just becoming awful,” he said.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.