Vandalism is a problem for all public lands. Experience has shown that it doesn’t matter it if is the most highly managed piece of ground or a beautiful back country byway far from civilization, stupid people are everywhere. For example in 2010 there was a highly publicized act of vandalism at the Red Rock National Conservation Area (NCA). I wrote about this in an article titled Learning the Hard Way (http://www.savegoldbutte.com/2010/12/learning-hard-way.html) . Gold Butte is not immune from vandalism either with the most highly publicized incident with the digging up of Art Coleman’s grave in 2014. These two BLM managed areas of public land are at near opposite ends of the management perspective yet they both experience vandalism.
The Red Rock NCA is the most visited BLM managed land in Southern Nevada with visitor counts over 800,000 per year since 2008. The Red Rock NCA is also the most highly managed BLM administered land receiving the most dollar per acre expenditures for protection. Despite all the protections, rangers and money spent on protection, vandalism still occurs in the Red Rock NCA. Gold Butte sees a small fraction of the visitation that the Red Rock NCA does, as well as a fraction of the spending on this BLM designated Area of Critical Environmental Concern. I speculate that if you could reduce the numbers down to the lowest common denominator, the number of people visiting and the dollars spent per acre in relation to the number of vandalism events, the numbers would be proportional in comparison.
It may seem logical that the more we spend the more we can protect. I don’t disagree that more money for public lands management wouldn’t be beneficial however, the difficulty is in the details of the dollars and how they are spent. Money alone is devoid of moral responsibility. Without a strong sense of moral obligation to our history and a value alignment between the managing agencies and the local communities, any additional money would be apathy at its best. The issue is not the amount of money being thrown at the problem; the issue is the course that public lands management is being directed in overall. So where does the course correction start?
If we truly want to curb incidents of vandalism towards cultural sites in our public lands then we need to start in our local communities first. If local communities have a strong connection to the land then they will take ownership and responsibility for ensuring its conservation. For instance if local boy scout troops are encouraged to camp and enjoy local public lands, those boys will grow up with fond memories of the area and want to see it well-looked-after. These troops as well as other service oriented organizations could also potentially become a resource for future volunteer based projects in the area. Having our future leaders invested in the multiple use landscape from an early age would be our best safeguard for public lands.
Another way to help promote local involvement is to get more school field trips funded to visit local public lands. The rising generation needs to see and experience the geologic curiosities and cultural sites within their local area. I remember as an elementary student loading up in a big yellow bus and traveling out to Valley of Fire. One of our stops was the petroglyphs at Atlatle Rock. I still remember to this day walking up the long stair case to gaze into the etchings on the bright red sandstone and thinking how cool they were. I didn’t need to read from a text book why it was important to preserve these ancient drawings because I felt a personal connection with them at a young age surrounded by my peers. We need more young people could connect to public lands on an individual level and learn from seeing and experiencing history, local culture and geology. More could be accomplished with one trip of the importance of protecting cultural sites than ever could in a classroom or by threat of fines.
Getting the local community involved in public lands management really is not an insurmountable barrier to overcome however the task is a shared responsibility. The federal agencies involved that manage these public lands and their policies have to create an environment that encourages and even allows this type of relationship. This is an area where the federal government is failing horribly and quickening their pace at doing so.
For example as a young scout we use to have many camporees and overnighters in the Virgin Mountain area including White Rock and Whitney Pockets. Less than two decades later after receiving my Eagle Scout and now being involved with scouting we cannot have these same types of activities within the parameters set by the BLM. Another example is when the Virgin Valley Stake wanted to do a youth Pioneer handcart trek where part of the route crossed over the Gold Butte ACEC but couldn’t due failed policy and inadequate bureaucracy which deters instead of encourages local connections to history and public lands. Many of the youth who would have been involved with the trek had pioneer ancestors who did cross this land in a wagon to help settle this land. Another example is when we put on the ST. Thomas celebration to commemorate our local heritage and the Park Service stymied the permit process and blatantly downplayed our community’s connection to ST Thomas. There are many more local examples from just the Southern Nevada region and this is certainly not a regional issue. This is failed federal administration in action.
The trust of the local communities in the federal government’s ability to manage our public lands is eroding at an ever quickening pace. The feds are responding by cutting out the need to call on the communities input on their policies and the sidestepping communities with the implementation of those policies. It is this ever eroding chasm that will be the downfall of the diversity found within our public lands across the west. The more the feds work to circumvent local communities and culture the harder time they will have at maintaining public lands.
Local land managing agencies need to be more attentive to local community values and align their managing practices to encompass and protect the values that are important to the local communities. It is true that the public lands were created to be enjoyed by all who want to share in their beauty but that does not mean that narrow special interest groups should be given the same credence as those who chose to live, work and play locally and strive be involved in public lands management on a daily basis.
If we want vandalism to stop, if we want the next generations to appreciate the cultures and the relics left behind upon the landscape then it is up to all parties involved to work together to protect all aspects of our public lands. Public lands management is most successful when starting from the local office and reporting progress on up, not top down mandates with one size fits all policy directives from a political appointee burdened with cost of what it takes to get to the top.