It looks like it’s happening again.
Actor Vanessa Hudgens recently traveled to Sedona, Arizona with her boyfriend Austin Butler. Like countless others before them, they were entranced by the magnificent red rocks surrounding the city and – in the spirit of Valentine’s Day – allegedly carved their love into those magnificent red rocks and posted an image onto her Instagram account.
The aftermath appears to be following the script perfectly: Someone sees this on the internet, the outrage machine whips into action, the alleged vandal removes the photos and goes quiet, and outdoor authorities say “it’s under investigation.” You’ve likely heard about this already, due to the flood of media coverage – including some exceptionally bone-headed takes about the incident “caus(ing) quite a stir among the lame-ass nerds who apparently love rocks.” So what happens next?
In the case of Mr. Andre, who we caught defacing boulders inside Joshua Tree National Park in 2015, the result was a threatened lawsuit against Modern Hiker followed by a quick admission of the graffiti artist’s guilt and a fine – which amounted to little more than a Los Angeles parking ticket.
In the instance of Casey Nocket, the 21-year-old artist allegedly traveled across multiple National Parks in the American West leaving graffiti and vandalism in her wake, along with a rich multimedia trail on Instagram and Tumblr. More than a year after the evidence was gathered, the case is still officially “under investigation.” No charges have been filed in any court, and spokespeople remain mum.
Unfortunately, it seems like Ms. Hudgens’s alleged vandalism was sent to the internet chum pool before someone could search her photos for metadata or geolocations, so it’s not yet known exactly where she may have committed this vandalism. The city of Sedona is surrounded by extensive Coconino National Forest land, including two Federal Wilderness areas. If it turns out she was on federal land, though, it is high time we show other would-be outdoor vandals that this behavior will not be tolerated.
If she is found guilty, we need to put Vanessa Hudgens in jail.
The law says violation of protective regulations inside National Parks and Forests is punishable by fines ranging from $100 to $500, incarceration ranging from 3 to 6 months, or both.
Those fines aren’t going to mean much to her – but a little time in a cell, perhaps combined with some anti-vandalism advocacy work and maybe a few trail cleanup days would not only provide a celebrity-amplified message of conservation and protection, but would also make it clear that if you want to ignore those messages and vandalize these public properties, you’re going to be held accountable.
Since this site began almost ten years ago, I have heard criticism from outdoor lovers who wanted to keep their favorite places secret exactly because they feared vandalism like this. As someone who did not grow up outdoorsy and only discovered hiking as an adult, I’ve always felt that the more people we can get out to enjoy and experience these places, the better off they would be. It’s impossible to protect something nobody knows about – and even if 5% of these new visitors are inspired to pick up some trash or volunteer, it would be worth it.
But I’ve also always said that an increase in visitorship must be met with an increase in funding for trail maintenance, patrols, and visitor education. Even without digging into budgets, it’s easy to tell that has most definitely not been the case. Here in Southern California, the Los Angeles-owned Rustic Canyon Park has become such a nuisance to officials that instead of trying to improve the resource or preserve its history, it’s being boarded up and put to the bulldozer. The Wisdom Tree is now so overrun that the L.A. Weekly asked if fame was killing it in a story last year, and I have personally seen visitors stealing plants from the volunteer-run Amir’s Garden in Griffith Park – visitors who seem unaware they are doing anything wrong.
National Parks saw their highest ever attendance last year, and with their Centennial this year we can expect even larger numbers. While the majority of visitors don’t cause problems like this, with larger crowds come a greater possibility of vandalism. This week, Joshua Tree National Park had to close two areas due to looting and previously had to close off access to Barker Dam after an unprecedented wave of graffiti hit the historic structures.
I’m happy to note that groups are taking steps to step up outreach and education, especially here in the Los Angeles area. Both the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and its seemingly endless list of partner organizations are doing an exemplary job of both increasing the accessibility of the parks as well as actively reaching out to new user groups and bringing the lessons of wilderness ethics to the city. And most of these new visitors want well-kept parks and law & order, too – a recent survey of visitors in the crowded East Fork area found that the two most-effective methods to ensure people are following the rules were signs listing prohibitions and authorities to fine the visitors when they were violating the rules.
So visitation is growing, education and outreach are on the rise – now it’s time to demand that the enforcement side steps it up.
Tools for crowdsourcing graffiti information already exist and are being used by police departments all over the country – often actually providing a source of income from successful prosecutions of repeat offenders that would often go unnoticed. Many cities even have smartphone apps that geotag and timestamp graffiti to report it to cleanup crews and local law enforcement. We need to not only start doing the same for our public lands, but we need to start using that data to bring charges against those vandals who are not celebrities and who don’t post their handiwork on Instagram.
Perhaps teaching people how to report outdoor vandalism can be the first PSA Ms. Hudgens films?