Social Media and Catching National Park Vandals

This past year I have upped my social media presence and tried to become a bit more “social media savy”.  Besides making an effort to become more active on Twitter, I also created an Instagram account. Honestly, the inspiration for starting to use Instagram was that I feared my constant posting of cat photos on Facebook was going to cause me to lose some friends. But on Instagram, the more cat photos the better, right?

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) this post will not contain any cat photos, but it will contain links to Instagram photos of illegal activity occurring in national parks . On Friday night, while taking a break from work – because grad students trying to defend soon work on Friday nights – I noticed an interesting post on Twitter from Modern Hiker that linked to Instagram.


That image was found on the Instagram account of Andre Saravia (AKA Mr. Andre) a french graffiti artist and appeared to show a graffiti tag in a location that looks suspiciously like it was taken in Joshua Tree National Park. Mr. Andre stated that the photo was taken in a friends backyard (private property). However Modern Hiker, with the help of other social media users, did a great job “sleuthing” and found that the tagging indeed occured within the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park.  Joshua Tree’s Chief Ranger received various calls about the graffiti and the park is beginning to investigate.

This is not the first time that, through the use of social media, Modern Hiker and others have brought vandalism in National Parks to our attention. In October of this year, another Instagram user named Casey Nocket posted photos of “art” she had created in nature during a trip out west.  Her graffiti has since been found in eight national park units including Crater Lake National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Zion National Park, and Colorado National Monument.  The story of Casey Nocket’s vandalism was quickly picked up by larger news outlets and the National Park Service issued a press release about the graffiti. The day after Modern Hiker broke the story, the students in my recreation management course asked to discuss the issue before I even had a chance to bring it up.

Catching vandals through the use of social media appears to be increasing. YouTube was used to catch a group of Boy Scouts who posted a video of themselves pushing over an ancient rock formation; they were eventually fined. Locally to me, in 2011, someone posted an imagine of vandalism on a mountain peak outside Salt Lake City on Mountain Project. The vandals had scratched their name on a rock at the peak and the perpetrators’ Facebook accounts were tracked down and posted on the forum. The graffiti was eventually cleaned up and I believe the vandals learned an important lesson.

Sign from Joshua Tree National Park warning of fines if visitors are caught defacing rock surfaces in an area closed off to climbing.


So why is social media becoming such an effective way to disseminate information about vandalism in National Parks? Well, people care about our national parks and get really riled up when someone abuses them. Modern Hiker has a really good write-up about why Casey Nocket’s case is such a big deal and it is well worth the read.  But from the recreation management research, we also have some science to explain why people on social, or otherwise, may become so upset about graffiti in particular.

Litter, graffiti, carving into trees, leaving human waste behind – these are all activities that recreation researchers define as “depreciative behavior“.  Multiple research studies, including one of my own, has shown that visitors are most perceptive and sensitive to depreciative behavior in recreation settings. Visitors to national parks are more likely to notice and have a negative response to depreciative impacts like carving into trees versus recreation impacts like soil erosion or trampled vegetation. So for example, in theory, visitors are more likely to respond strongly to images of graffiti than if I posted an image of soil erosion caused by visitors cutting switchbacks.  As such, social media is a great venue for bringing attention to depreciative behavior but other methods might be needed to bring other types of visitor impacts to the public’s attention.

So what about the vandals? What does recreation research tell us about vandalism? Well we generally categorize problem recreation behavior into one of five categories (examples provided):


Graffiti could fall into a couple of these categories. Generally, I think graffiti would be considered an illegal action. However, maybe in some situations it could be considered a careless action.  Either way, the most effective means to manage for illegal and careless actions on public lands is through the use of direct management techniques. In recreation management that means the use of fines.  In most cases, national park and public land managers try to limit their use of direct management actions and prefer to use indirect techniques such as education and interpretation because visitors prefer them. However, studies have shown that education is ineffective at preventing illegal activities and only slightly effective at preventing careless activities. From the research, it seems that the best way to prevent vandalism is to catch the vandals and fine them. Although, a bit of education about why vandalism is detrimental to public lands and why public lands are preserved couldn’t hurt either.

Unfortunately, most park vandals are not caught and graffiti on public lands is a serious issue.  A few years ago I went to Zion National Park for a research scoping visit. One of the park rangers that spent the day with us in the field told me that she never leaves her office without a brush for cleaning graffiti off rocks.  However, usually something a little more intense than a brush is needed to clean the graffiti found on public lands. In some locations, graffiti is so bad and so widespread that areas must be closed to public use. Some national park managers are saying that social media is contributing to an increase in park vandalism; speculating that the instant gratification of social media inspires people to deface resources. Hopefully there are enough of us on social media that abhor vandalism in our nation’s public lands that we can help keep others in check.

What do you think? Is social media the cause of or part of the solution for vandalism on public lands?

Sunset ski in @grandtetonnps. #winter #girlsweekend #grandteton

A post shared by Ashley D (@ashrececo) on



One thought on “Social Media and Catching National Park Vandals

  1. Well, I think it will have both a positive AND a negative affect on the problem – pretty much the same affect social media will have on every thing it impacts. So by all means, build on the positives, and use it for that “bit of education.” I have no studies to back this up, but my own feeling always is that if “education” is not succeeding, it’s because there really just isn’t enough of it. And social media, it seems to me, is uniquely qualified to deliver education; it should be used!

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