I went away on vacation and I have about a billion things to share about it, but while I was gone my feed went crazy with this story.
A woman from New York used her Instagram account to show off a series of paintings she left on natural features in several National Parks across the western United States. While her act of vandalism is deeply disappointing, the thing that horrified me more were the comments left on blog articles advocating for punishments that are far more heinous than any act of vandalism.
The bloggers who originally reported the story have asked that the internet focus its efforts on being more positive, and I agree. So here’s my contribution:
5 Positive Things you can do to prevent vandalism in National Parks
Graffiti in Golden Gate National Recreation Area
1. Learn how to take care of the places you visit.
There is a brilliant set of ethics for minimizing impact in nature called Leave No Trace. If you already know about it, great! However, realize that the way they are applied can vary from place to place. The best practice in one park may not be accepted in another. Learn how to practice Leave No Trace in each park you visit. The park rangers I know would instantly love any visitor who came up them to ask how they could do this.
2. Donate to friends groups.
The National Park Service has been hit hard by the sequester, which means less money is available for projects and staff that could prevent vandalism. Fortunately, most major parks have non-profit organizations that help raise money for specific projects. Here in the park I love, the Yosemite Conservancy sponsored a project to restore an area impacted by eco-graffiti. If your favorite park doesn’t have its own friends group consider a donation to the National Parks Conservation Association.
3. Encourage others to care about parks.
We need more people who care about our parks, and for that to happen we need more people to have meaningful experiences in them. So take someone you love to your favorite place and teach them how to take care of it.
4. Pick up trash, even if it’s not yours.
There is a controversial idea called broken window theory. It suggests that trash and broken windows creates the appearance of disorder, and invites more crime. Although it originated in urban areas, the same idea is often applied in parks. The thought goes, a place impacted by litter makes people think that no one cares, or that it’s OK to leave trash or graffiti. Whether you agree or disagree with broken window theory, cleaning up trash is an under-appreciated way to have a positive impact. By picking up litter, you are setting a good example, for others and possibly inspiring them to more positive actions, and preventing further damage. Additionally, if you want to serve parks in a more structured activity you can participate as a National Parks volunteer.
5. If you see something wrong, speak up, but do so gently.
Have you ever been yelled at in a way that made you want to just keep doing whatever it was that you were being yelled at for?
I firmly believe that most of the people doing damage to our national parks don’t realize that is what they are doing. They don’t understand the impact their actions have on the ecosystems or on other people’s experiences.
Studies in Petrified Forest and other parks have found that park signs phrased with a message that highlights positive behaviors are more effective than signs phrased negatively. (“Please stay on the trail.” vs. “Please don’t go off the trail.”)
So rather than getting angry with these visitors, approach from a positive place. “Isn’t great we have this beautiful place? When you paint on the rocks it makes it look less wild, less scenic. Please leave it as you found it.” If you can’t do something like this without getting angry and yelling, you are probably going to be more effective by reporting the behavior to a ranger.
The outpouring of comments on this story shows that people really do care about parks. But if we care about our parks there is more we should be doing than being belligerent in the comments section on news articles. So if you care, really care, about our nation’s parks, please, start advocating for them and set a good example when you visit them.
P.S. On a related note, more recently there was another incident in Yosemite where social media was used to prosecute illegal activities in the park.