Rock defacement near Moab causes social media stir

Family responsible says they have agreed to pay a fine, and “apologize for any and all who have been affected by our negligence.”

Yet another instance of vandalism on Utah’s public lands has gone viral.

Twitter user @Utah_Sailor shared a photo of a sandstone boulder with “Finn fam 2023” scratched across its surface on May 8. The tweeter told The Salt Lake Tribune she did not take the photo and was not sure where it came from, but the etching appeared to have happened somewhere in southern Utah’s redrock country.

The post has amassed nearly 16,000 likes and about 1,500 retweets in the week since. Another photo uploaded to Reddit’s r/facepalm, also a week ago, shows what appears to be a middle-aged couple and teenager or young woman posing atop the vandalized rock. That post had nearly 10,000 upvotes and around 2,400 comments before moderators removed it.

Commenters on both social media posts mocked the loopy, stylized cursive of the graffiti. Others decried the family for trashing Utah’s landscape.

“For those wondering... this is likely at a National/Public park,” a Reddit user wrote in a top comment. “Defacing anything in one is just a really s----- and disrespectful thing to do. Not to mention illegal.”

A few others defended the family’s action and wondered if the writing was in nonpermanent chalk.

“All it takes is one person to do something like this then others will start doing it too,” a Twitter user countered. “Even if it is chalk, the next person might use something permanent. They need to be found and made an example of, so others don’t also do it.”

The Tribune has since confirmed the defaced boulder is located near Catacomb Rock, a popular four-wheel driving destination near Moab, on land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

One of the family members said they have contacted local authorities and agreed to pay a fine. Queries sent to BLM officials and the Grand County Sheriff were not returned Monday.

“We have a young daughter who was using something she found on the ground to write on the rock,” the family member wrote over Facebook Messenger. “We assumed it was a chalk like substance and had no idea that she was causing any damage or we would’ve put a stop to it.”

The family is from Arizona, and The Tribune has chosen not to share their names. It is not clear whether they have been charged with a crime.

“We will never allow anything like this to happen in the future and deeply regret if damage was done,” the family member wrote. “We apologize for any and all who have been affected by our negligence.”

The family was in Utah as part of an annual Bronco Safari which ran May 2-7. Utah Bronco Club President Richard Strope and Vice President Steve St. Clair helped organize the event, and confirmed the family participated. The vandalism to the boulder, itself roughly the size of a Bronco SUV, occurred during a side excursion and was not part of the safari, however.

“We make every attempt to educate our peers, ... our friends and our attendees about how fragile access is to that whole area down there,” St. Clair said in a phone interview. “Anything we can do to help conserve and protect that access is what we’re about.”

The Bronco Safari held its first event in 2011 with about 40 vehicles, St. Clair said. The group has since ballooned in popularity, due in part to Ford’s introduction of the sixth-generation model of their namesake vehicle in 2020. This year’s safari lured about 300 vehicles to Utah’s Grand County.

“It’s absolutely a stunning area down there,” St. Clair said, “and we want to share it and to continue to be able to share it.”

St. Clair and Strope said they weren’t aware of the graffiti until a Tribune reporter reached out to them last week. They said they then contacted the BLM and drove to Moab over the weekend to help a ranger repair the damage.

“When things go wrong, it’s what you do to make it right,” Strope said. “We wanted to make sure it’s right.”

They confirmed the graffiti was etched into the rock, and not scrawled with chalk.

“There’s no trace of it anymore, fortunately,” St. Clair said, “except for the undying relentlessness of the internet.”

(Photo courtesy of Steve St.Clair) Vandalism to a Bronco-sized boulder near Moab's Catacomb Rock has since been repaired according to leaders of the Utah Bronco Club.

How public land graffiti goes viral

The “Finn fam” flub blew up after a family member posted their selfie to a private Facebook group for off-highway vehicle enthusiasts. She took down the photo after it received a negative response, but not before group members captured screenshots of the post and shared them elsewhere.

It’s yet another example of public lands and social media colliding over the past decade. Utah has long lured social media users who engage in questionable behaviors with picture-perfect backgrounds, evidently looking for likes and clout. But those same social platforms can cause such posts to go viral for reasons the author didn’t intend, as they get called out en masse for unethical or illegal acts.

In 2013, for example, a pair of Boy Scout leaders shared a Facebook video of them toppling an ancient hoodoo formation in Goblin Valley State Park. It spread to other platforms, like YouTube, where it was widely condemned and quickly became national news. The men faced felony charges, but state officials ultimately slapped them with misdemeanors and required them to fund new signs warning visitors to leave rock features alone.

Photo courtesy of Modernhiker.com A deleted Instagram post shows a Canyonlands National Park visitor applying graffiti to a rock using the handle "Creepytings" in 2014. The National Park Service later banned the woman from federal lands and required her to complete community service.

While that case worked its way through the courts in 2014, a New York woman went viral — also in a bad way — after painting graffiti images, along with her Instagram handle “Creepytings,” on features in national parks across the West. Utah’s Zion, Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon parks were among her targets. The woman defended her images as “art, not vandalism,” but the National Park Service disagreed. She was barred from recreating on federal lands for two years and had to complete 200 hours of community service.

In the years since, social media accounts have emerged to specifically shine a light on shady behavior outdoors, including Instagram’s “publiclandshateyou.”

“It is effective,” the anonymous account manager told The Hill in 2020. “The goal isn’t to shame people, but sometimes that’s what works.”

The “call-out culture” account appears to have fallen silent in the last few years, but not, apparently, because improper behavior on public lands has stopped.

Last month, Snow Canyon State Park posted on Instagram the aftermath of a confetti gun fired at Petrified Dunes. Video showed bags and bags of multicolored litter plastering sandstone, stuck in ponds and blowing across paths.

“Snow Canyon is a beautiful landscape,” park managers wrote. “People travel from all over the world to take in its (normally) pristine beauty. Trash like this devalues the land, and sends the signal that this behavior is acceptable. It also takes time, resources, and state funds to clean up after.”

The little bits of paper take a long time to decompose in a desert ecosystem, the post warned. It can also harm desert tortoise and the fragile environment found in ephemeral pools, which supports tadpoles and fairy shrimp.

“We hope next time,” park managers wrote, “you will opt to use the natural beauty as a backdrop to your photo, without the add-ons.”