How Social Media Drives National Park Vandalism
In recent years numerous national parks have suffered a surge in vandalism, thanks to increased visibility and social media. In nearby Arches National Park, according to an April 11, 2014 article in the Salt Lake Tribune, the Sand Dunes Ranch section had to be closed from public access because of heavy vandalism to its sandstone boulders and cliffs. Rangers described the 20 by 30 ft section of sandstone wall as “deeply etched with graffiti” and said that the degree of destruction was surprising since this section of the park is “tucked away,” off the beaten path. This recent case in Arches, just across the Utah border from Mesa County, appears to be part of a growing trend in which vandals take pictures of their their destructive activities and post them to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Joshua Tree National Park, popular among residents of Southern California, Western Arizona, and Southern Nevada, is beginning to look like an extension of some graffiti-covered urban centers. In 2013 hundreds of acres and miles of trails traversing Joshua Tree’s giant bounders and unusual vegetation had to be closed due to an outbreak of graffiti vandalism. Boulders and some trees were damaged, mostly by spray paint, some scrawled with indecipherable messages and gang tags. Again, accounts point to vandals taking pride in causing damage to a highly prized national parks, and subsequently posting “trophy” images or videos on social media.
In September of 2013 the National Parks Service reported on an alarming trend in park vandalism that has resulted in at least 9,000 instances of vandalism within national parks since 2009. In some areas this trend appears to be fueled by “competition” between self-titled graffiti artists, but the “viral” nature of social media postings of defaced national park features is enticing many to become “celebrity” vandals. Social media, however, is not the only driver behind vandalism at national parks. Just weeks ago in March, a 190-million-year-old fossilized dinosaur track was chipped from its sandstone matrix in Canyonlands National Park, and stolen. The vandalism was very likely the result of treasure seeking.
National Park status comes at a cost. Though visitation to national parks and other National Park Service-managed areas is not increasing overall, visibility through social media is. There are some who aren’t content with photographs of beautiful vistas, and friends and family posing before majestic landscapes and monuments. Social media is driving an increasing appetite for fame, and the vandalism of famous national park sites brings attention where photographic travelogues get a “ho-hum.”
Are the costs of higher visibility worth in to those of us who live near the Colorado National Monument? Proponents tout higher visitor numbers and more cash in the local economy, and those points are disputable, but it’s indisputable that the more visible and renowned the national park, the more likely it is to be hit with vandalism by someone seeking 15 minutes of Instagram fame.
The Colorado National Monument is a treasure to those who live within its shadow. It’s relatively well-managed in its current status, and locals provide eyes, ears, and helping hands where the NPS cannot always be. With a change in status this small national monument, with its fragile desert soil, sandstone cliffs, and abundant wildlife, could be exposed to increased visibility, traffic, congestion, as well as unintentional and INTENTIONAL human destruction. National park status is not work the risk. Let’s protect our national monument from “celebrity vandals.”