Graffiti invades Joshua Tree, Pinnacles and many California state parks


In late December, a group of volunteers gathered in Pine Canyon in the foothills of Mount Diablo, about 30 miles east of San Francisco, to spray the sandstone with Elephant Snot, a biodegradable detergent that removes graffiti.

The task was enormous. Inside three large wind caves – where owls, peregrine falcons and other birds nest – labels, profanity and hate speech have been splattered across the sandstone. Volunteers carried jugs of water half a mile to wash down with elephant snot and painted over the degrading graffiti on the fragile rock faces.

“These beautiful areas have been untouched for thousands of years and they’re being impacted in such a short time,” says Sean Burke, a former ranger and rock climber who coordinated the cleanup through the non-profit conservation association Save Mount Diablo. “[Graffiti] It’s hard on plants, it’s hard on animals, it’s hard on individuals who want to go out and recreate themselves and be able to connect to a bigger picture than themselves.

Save Mount Diablo organized this volunteer effort to clean up graffiti in the Wind Caves in Pine Canyon.

Courtesy of Sean Burke

Mount Diablo State Park is just one of many California parks — both state and national — that have had problems with graffiti lately. Lake Perris State Recreation Area, Old Sacramento State Historic Park, Fort Ord Dunes State Park, and South Yuba River State Park have all become prime targets within of the California state park system, according to information officer Jorge Moreno.

“The problem of graffiti and vandalism is unfortunately a common problem in many units at California State Park,” says Moreno. “Graffiti is often found on restrooms, garbage cans, buildings, bridges, signs, trees, rock formations and other places in our park units.”

Staff members are working to clean up graffiti as soon as possible, and in many cases volunteers have helped with the cleanup effort, Moreno adds. In late September, a team of three volunteers and a ranger painted graffiti on rocks along the Terri Peak Trail at Lake Perris, he says.

In Joshua Tree National Park, natural features have been increasingly degraded in recent years, as evidenced by a new graffiti reporting system created by park officials in 2017.

In a PowerPoint presentation titled Joshua Tree National Park Graffiti Updates 2021, Anna Tegarden, the park’s science and GIS program manager, revealed the extent of the problem. Data shows that during the pandemic – and alongside increased visitation – reports of graffiti in the park have skyrocketed.

Elaborate graffiti outside of Landers, California in the Mojave Desert.

Elaborate graffiti outside of Landers, California in the Mojave Desert.

Patrick Perkins

Joshua Tree saw 85 graffiti incidents reported in 2017, and 2018 and 2019 saw even fewer incidents. But in 2020, the number has risen to 140 incidents. By three-quarters of 2021, 216 incidents had already been reported (full-year figures are not yet available, Tegarden said).

Most graffiti in Joshua Tree National Park is created with acrylic paint, spray paint, and stickers, but staff members have also observed chalk, charcoal, and water-based graffiti -strong. Much of the graffiti has occurred near roads and campgrounds, and of the 601 graffiti incidents reported since 2017, 413 have been removed.

“Graffiti in Joshua Tree is a widespread problem affecting park infrastructure as well as cultural and natural resources,” Tegarden wrote.
Further north, in the Pinnacles National Park, a famous cave red graffiti gradient needed extensive cleaning end of 2021, shutting down the feature for weeks.

More degraded rocks in the Mojave Desert.

More degraded rocks in the Mojave Desert.

Patrick Perkins

“This act of vandalism…gives us all an opportunity to reflect on how we care for our public lands,” park officials wrote on Facebook. “Graffiti that took minutes to spray will take well over 100 staff hours and 500 pounds of equipment to remove.”

For Burke, the former ranger, an increase in graffiti encounters in protected natural areas has been “a drag”.

“I’ve certainly seen it appear in many different places, and places you wouldn’t expect.” he says. One example that stuck in his mind: some beautiful isolated wind caves in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area near Las Vegas.

“Here we are, we walk miles away from everyone and we come across someone who has written their name.” he says. “Yeah, your name is cool, but did you really have to go?” I don’t know whether to go there.

He wants people to consider tagging unnatural places instead. “Come write it on my house,” he said. “Go write it on a bridge. Go play video games.


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