You’re on a morning hike with a friend seeking solace in the wilderness. You smell the fresh air, feel the warm sun bask against your skin, hear the crunching of leaves as critters scurry about nearby. You’ve hiked four miles at this point. You are eager and ready to make it to the flowing waterfall you originally set out for. It’s within your reach, just a few more steps and you’ll approach your destination. That’s when you see it out of the corner of your eye: the scrawling of illegitimate letters and symbols across rocks and trees. It’s an unwelcome expression of art someone decided to paint atop a natural habitat.
Graffiti in natural areas has long been an unfortunate problem. In San Diego a long-time patron of the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy recently donated $100,000 to cover the costs restoring the sandstone bluffs near Encinitas. They were covered with graffiti, carvings, and spray paint. With countless hours of hard work, a newly created trail, and posted signs pleading to people to stop damaging the surrounding area, the trail was finally almost fully restored to its original state. But not every natural habitat gets the same treatment. Some stay forever marked and disregarded.
There are a number of ways graffiti affects natural areas, and we will cover just a few of those here.
Traditional spraypaint is well-known to have toxic effects on the environment. They contain CFCs and other ozone-depleting materials, both counter-intuitive to preserving nature. On rainy days, runoff could carry chemicals from freshly-sprayed graffiti into waterways, leading to a high likelihood of harming animals that use this as a water source. Even if perpetrators are not using spraypaint, a lot of paint is petrochemically-based. This means it comes from oil, leaving quite the footprint behind.
It Brings Crime
Most associate hiking as an activity where you don’t need to worry about other people affecting your safety. Graffiti often comes with a wave effect. Heavily vandalized areas in urban communities seem to experience a spike in crime. The same can be said for graffiti in natural areas. In San Diego, Adobe Falls, a year-round waterfall near San Diego State University experiences more than just acts of vandalism. Residents of the surrounding area complain of loitering, trespassing, and other lawful behavior. This has prompted an increase in security around the area.
It Can Promote Hate
It would be unfair to say that all graffiti expresses hate and resentment. However, some graffiti is intentionally painted to express gang-related or hateful sentiments. Nature should be a place people can turn to to escape the everyday woes of life, not get entangled deeper. The last thing anyone wants to see after hiking a few miles to each a landmark is for it to be disgraced by competing gang logos.
It Brings Unwanted Foot-Traffic
The less known a trail is the better chance there is of illegal activity occurring. There seems to be an allure of exploring a destination that is considered dangerous, difficult to get to, or visually appealing. Hikes with graffiti are no exception. In fact, they generally attract more attention than your average non-defaced hike. Murphy’s Ranch in Pacific Palisades, CA is one hike that garnered much attention for its mass amounts of graffiti sprawled across numerous abandoned structures. Granted much of the hype is credited to the folklore surrounding this area, however this hike has been plagued with demolition threats since this spot has been an “annoyance for the city of Los Angeles”.
It is Costly to Remove
Not only is it a nuisance to remove graffiti in natural areas, it is also time consuming and expensive. Additionally, sandblasting and chemical strippers can cause irreparable damage to natural features, especially if graffiti is on older geological formations. The historic Barker Dam at Joshua Tree National Park underwent restoration recently after a few visitors used instruments to gouge their initials names and messages into the backside of the dam. The restoration project cost $46,000 to prepare the site and $33,000 in work hours.
It Entices Copy Cats to One-Up Competition
When vandalism hits well known places, such as National Parks, it gets a good amount of exposure. Casey Nocket became infamous seemingly overnight after posting images on Instagram of graffiti tagging “Creepytings” at several national parks. Her name spread across the news and her pictures were soon spread across the Internet. Such exposure prompts others to follow in her footsteps in hopes they too gain the same level of notoriety. Nocket even went so far as to admit her graffiti was used with acrylic paint, the most harmful to the environment.
If you know someone in acts of vandalism in natural areas, please remind them of the imminent harm and domino effect it can imitate. Let’s keep our land safe, clean, and enjoyable for decades to come.