U.S. Forest Service officials say the police failed to get proper permission and, in effect, broke the law.
Leaving human-made objects on Kings Peak, which is inside the High Uintas Wilderness Area, violates the 1964 Wilderness Act and Forest Service wilderness regulations, said Clark Tucker, district ranger for the Ashley National Forest.
"Human intrusions are supposed to be kept to a minimum," Tucker said. "[The High Uintas] is a special place. It's not a place for monuments or structures."
On the Sept. 11 anniversary, seven police officers trekked to the peak, the highest point in Utah, to memorialize James Cawley. A police detective and Marine reservist, Cawley died during the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The officers were accompanied by Cawley's brother, Mike Cawley.
Using construction adhesive, the officers embedded the plaque into a rock.
Assistant Police Chief Carroll Mays, who organized the trip, said he received verbal permission last week over the phone from Rick Schuler, a recreation manager for the Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
Schuler on Wednesday acknowledged he gave the green light, but admitted he had no authority to do so.
"It was a screw-up on my part," Schuler said. "At the time I thought it was a great thing . . . I was caught up in the moment."
Though most hikers access Kings Peak from the Wasatch-Cache, the mountain actually is in the Ashley National Forest. And Tucker said no one asked his office for permission.
Had the officers asked, their request would have been denied, Tucker said.
The High Uintas are protected as wilderness, a designation aimed at preserving land in its natural state. Permanent structures or objects that are not necessary for managing and protecting wilderness are prohibited.
Wilderness, as defined in the 1964 law, is "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
After The Salt Lake Tribune reported the Cawley plaque, the Forest Service received numerous complaints from concerned citizens, among them environmentalist Dick Carter, who helped push the High Uintas wilderness designation.
"It's a noteworthy point that these guys want to celebrate their friend at the top of Utah in one of the biggest wilderness areas in the lower 48," Carter said. "But it's counter to the context of what we should be doing with wilderness."
Tucker said he will ask the police officers to remove the plaque as soon as possible.
"If they don't want to do it, we'll do it and [ship the plaque] back to them," the ranger said.
Mays, an avid hiker, said he understands that not everyone should be able to leave tributes in wilderness, but Cawley's memorial is unique. "We're honoring a man who gave his life for his country," he said.
The plaque, he noted, is noticeable only to people who go looking for it, because it was placed several yards off the ridgeline to the southwest. "I didn't want it to intrude on anyone's wilderness experience."
But Mays said he is willing to cooperate with the Forest Service and remove the plaque, if asked.
Tucker and Tom Tidwell, supervisor of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, said they may suggest a more appropriate place for the police to honor Cawley in either of the forests.
However, any permanent monument on forest land would be subject to an environmental review and a public-comment period, pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act, Tucker said.