John G. Taylor: Some visitors to Southwest Utah are doing beastly things to our relics

Utah’s state and national parks are being scarred by visiting marauders.

(Photo courtesy of Jen Beard) A boulder hosting a historic petroglyph sits overturned in the water near Gunlock State Parking in Washington County on May 7, 2020.

St. George • When you’re dealing with national treasures, the old warning — “You break it, you own it” — does not apply.

Southwest Utah is a party for the senses. But some visitors have become increasingly feral during the last year.

You can blame a “jail break” mentality from the pandemic lockdown. Or maybe bad manners never corrected. They’re trying risky stunts in rock climbing and on ATVs. They’re doing beastly things to manmade and natural relics. And they’re leaving behind piles of human waste.

Don’t call them tourists. These marauders are unencumbered by good intentions or fear of consequences. They’re hell-bent on leaving their sometimes-indelible marks for the public and paid public servants to address.

Debris is spreading like measles along Interstate 15 as inmate road crews and citizen volunteers are sidelined by the pandemic. Plastic, plastic everything, then bedding and the odd sack of potatoes.

In remote areas, volunteer rescuers are being overwhelmed by hikers, hang gliders, campers — the capable, the curious and the clueless — who stumble into misadventures, injury or death.

And state and national parks are being scarred.

A 200-year-old petroglyph was vandalized in Gunlock State Park near St. George in May 2020. The image was of a person riding a horse, likely done by a member of a Southern Paiute tribe. The rock was dug up —with no small effort — and pushed into the reservoir.

Zion and Bryce Canyon also have seen ancient artwork defaced.

The crazy people are a minority, but potent. This isn’t on the scale of the Taliban blowing up thousand-year-old statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, but nothing’s so bad that it might not get worse. Consider these behaviors:

  • Taking a .30-30 Winchester to blast rural road signs on a Friday night isn’t right. But isn’t the same affliction as reckless target shooting that starts a fire incinerating endangered Mojave Desert tortoises.

  • Spray-painting a freight car on a railroad siding isn’t the same crime as toppling gravestones and scrawling vile slogans on houses of worship.

I’ve lived in East Coast tourist areas where locals welcomed cash-stuffed visitors — though they smiled more broadly when seasons changed, returning a more solitary existence. But from hot-air balloons to back-country skiing, Utah is always in season.

As Southwest Utah preps for a post-pandemic geyser of visitors, tourist boards and chambers of commerce need a potent public education campaign hinged on personal responsibility and consequences. And a few well-placed remote cameras.

Maybe we could amend the familiar Utah brand to something like: “Utah: Life Elevated. Don’t Bring It Down.”

John G. Taylor

John G. Taylor, a retired journalist, is the author of the monthly “Dateline: St. George” podcast on Utah Public Radio.

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