Arizona Public Lands Are Plagued With Vandalism

July 19, 2013

A couple months ago, vandals sprayed nearly 50 tags at Saguaro National Park east of Tucson, including more than a dozen of the iconic cactuses that cover the landscape.

vandalism An example of vandalism at the BLM site. (Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management)

While they may look imposing, the are actually fairly fragile. So too is ancient Native artwork like petroglyphs and pictographs that dot Arizona’s public lands. When taggers strike some of the most delicate parts of the state’s history, you can’t simply power wash the paint away. KJZZ’s Nick Blumberg went out to learn how land managers respond when vandals strike.

In May, taggers spray painted 16 saguaros along a 3 mile stretch of the Douglas Spring Trail. To see how the cleanup was going, I went down to the trail to meet...

"Brad Shattuck, facility manager for Saguaro National Park," Brad Shattuck said.

"And I’m Andy Fisher. I’m the chief of interpretation here at Saguaro National Park," Andy Fisher said.

Vandals also spray painted rocks, steps and signs. That has all been pretty well erased, but we do not have to hike very far before we find a cactus marred with black marks.

"So this is our first tagged location, which we did not treat. It was a little harder, it being about 7 feet up in the air," Shattuck said.

Nobody has been caught, but whoever did this could face thousands in fines and time in jail.

"Do you have any sense of how old this cactus is?" I asked.

"Most of these cacti, we don’t know exactly how old they are, but I’m comfortable saying this one is somewhere between 100 and 150 years old. Which means this one was probably a seedling when the Battle of Gettysburg was happening," Fisher said.

Brad said his team wanted to find the most environmentally friendly cleaning product possible. The thing they landed on?

"It’s referred to as elephant snot," Shattuck said.

They painted it on with a brush, let it sit for half an hour and washed it off with a hand water pump.

"It’s nerve-wracking. When you’re talking about dealing with somebody who’s 150 years old, it makes you want to be as gentle as possible," Shattuck said.

We go check out one of the saguaros Brad and his team treated with elephant snot.

"And for the most part, you cannot tell where the paint is. I mean, you being the new person, can you see it?" Shattuck said.

It did not look perfect, but it was dramatically better than the untreated cactus.

"But it’s hard, because you can’t tell whether that’s the paint, or whether it’s just part of the natural growth," I said.

saguaro Andy and Brad at Saguaro National Park. (Photo by Nick Blumberg-KJZZ)

"That means mission accomplished!" Shattuck said.

"Yay!" Andy exclaimed.

But while we were out on the trail last week, Brad noticed some cracks in one of the cactuses he had cleaned. Later, some biologists checked out the saguaros and put the kibosh on elephant snot. That is really disappointing for Andy. Out on the trail, she lit up when she talked about how much she loves this park.

"How can you not? I mean, look around. It’s amazing. You walk out of Tucson and wilderness -- boom!" Fisher said. "You’re there! It’s fabulous, and I don’t think people realize that."

Andy calls Saguaro National Park Tucson’s backyard, and that is not far off the mark. Getting to a different vandalized site up on the Agua Fria National Monument takes more effort.

I followed Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Bryan Lausten up north on the 17, through Cordes Junction and onto a bumpy, unpaved road that took us onto to the Monument. Then, we hiked, and not on some sissy little managed trails.

"Depending on how the plants grow, you have to find a new way each time," Lausten said.

Bryan shows me several panels of petroglyphs -- ancient rock art, everything from concentric squares to antelope and deer. This area was home to several Native American cultures between 500 and 1000 years ago. In 2010, volunteers found a group of petroglyphs along a bend in the Agua Fria River tagged with white spray paint.

"This one has a smiley face, the one over here has some cuss words," Lausten said.

Bryan Bryan at Agua Fria National Monument. (Photo by Nick Blumberg-KJZZ)

For Bryan, this vandalism is an attack on our history.

"You’re standing where somebody picked that little antelope picture right there. They’ve left a story, and that story has been destroyed and damaged. It’s not different than taking a rare book and tearing out pages," Lausten said.

Bryan has been doing this for 16 years. He is always disappointed by acts of vandalism but no longer surprised. But some of the things he has found out in the middle of nowhere? Now those are surprising.

"Ladies undergarments, mens undergarments. One time we found a brand new pair of running shoes, still tied together, like if you had bought them at the store," Lausten said. "Blow dryers. I mean, there is a not a plug-in for 100 miles. You wonder if people are flying by in planes and throwing things out."

And whether it is vandalizing petroglyphs or stealing pieces of ancient pottery from the monument, each act makes it more difficult for Bryan to hear the stories this land is trying to tell.

"I tell a lot of the kids that I talk to, that if you were to go over to your friend’s house and he was working on a puzzle, and you saw a puzzle piece and you were to take it home with you, would your friend ever be able to finish that puzzle?" Lausten said.

vandalism More vandalism at the BLM site. (Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management)


Bryan was hoping to get some experts out to look at the tagged rocks this year, but there is not enough money in the budget.

And down in Tucson, Brad and Andy hope they can find a way to clean the saguaros lining the Douglas Spring Trail without damaging them further. All three of them say one of the best ways to keep people from harming public land? Educate them.