Red Rocks of Nevada smudged by less colorful graffiti

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The jagged pink mountains here glitter, rare instances of natural beauty in a desolate landscape known more for its gleaming casinos.

Red Rock Canyon has attracted hikers and history buffs for years. As Las Vegas has grown, new roads have made it accessible to people with vandalism in mind. For years, hikers and rock climbers have flocked to Red Rock Canyon for the easily accessible climbs. History seekers come to look at the patch of land where Indian tribes roamed as far back as the 10th century.

Now graffiti vandals have found the place, too. A hiker recently spotted red scrawls on the rocks a few yards off a popular trail. In letters stretching as high as two feet, the graffiti damaged pictographs that could be more than 1,000 years old.

“This is the most extensive damage we’ve ever seen,” said Mark Boatwright, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management, which runs the National Conservation Area. “We know somebody really went out of their way to make this mess and stayed here doing it for quite a while.”

Just a few years ago, driving here from Las Vegas could take more than half an hour, including detours on dirt roads. These days, the closest cluster of housing is about seven miles away. And increasingly, officials are dealing with the kinds of troubles that were once confined to the city.

Similar problems have popped up in land reserves in other parts of Nevada, Colorado and Arizona, most frequently with graffiti that law enforcement officials suspect is produced by teenagers. In some cases, the police say, gangs may be using the out-of-the-way places for initiations.

So it is here, Mr. Boatwright believes, that members of the self-proclaimed Nasty Habits Crew wanted to mark the territory as their own. Over a stretch of rocks overlooking a cliff, the red and black graffiti advertises the gang’s name.

Even up close it is hard to see exactly what the damaged historical drawings depict — some are simply lines stacked on top of one another. And historians have never been able to pinpoint when they were each created, although one school of thought maintains that some are markers from American pioneers making their way west who were simply trying to carve their name into the rock. But clearly, this was a sought-after spot, reached only by climbing over a series of boulders just off the path.

“It all increased shock value and notoriety, and that’s what these guys are after,” said Scott Black, a detective with the Las Vegas Police Department who specializes in graffiti. “It just makes the crimes more heinous, but they see these high-profile locations as a challenge.”

Last year in Gold Butte, Nev., hikers found what appeared to be a chalk- or rock-drawn penis on a large slab of red rock that is heavily decorated with petroglyphs, ancient pictures made by carving into the surface of the rock.

The population in nearby St. George, Utah, has increased rapidly in recent years. And the growth has brought more off-road vehicles to Gold Butte.

“It’s now this little hub for everyone who wants to have a little wild, off-road adventure,” said Nancy Hall, a volunteer who monitors the Gold Butte area. “With that popularity has come some kind of things that we really don’t want.”

Ms. Hall said there had also been problems with illegal dumping and target shooting; one rock has become riddled with pockmarks from bullets. Similar issues have cropped up at Agua Fria National Monument in central Arizona, where officials routinely find trash or bullet casings in wilderness areas. One official is assigned to cover nearly 70,000 acres of land there, making it almost impossible to catch someone in the act.

“There is a general lack of awareness that these are protected,” said Danielle Murray, a spokesman for the Conservation Lands Foundation, which checks on protected land throughout the country. Most of the areas have relatively little monitoring, unlike more well-worn public spaces like state and national parks. “If something like this happened in a national park like Yosemite, there would be a big outcry from everywhere.”

The proliferation of handheld GPS devices adds to the problem, Ms. Murray said. Not too long ago, it might have taken serious research to hunt down the ancient carvings. Now, it can take a matter of moments.

Certain trails here are particularly popular for school field trips, making it easy for vandals to know which areas are vulnerable. A few years ago another visitor used a rock to scratch off several charcoal drawings that historians believe depicted early Mormon pioneers.

“The park is getting closer and closer to the city,” said Pat Williams, a volunteer with Friends of Red Rock Canyon, which sends monitors to the area. “We want to say, listen we’re glad you love it here, but here’s the correct way to think about this place.”

Bureau of Land Management officials expect that it will cost at least $10,000 to remove the graffiti from the rocks, a process that will take months to avoid damaging the paintings and carvings.

And that includes a remnant of a bit of graffiti that Mr. Boatwright, the archaeologist, believes is left from the 1980s — it has faded to look more like a bleach mark than paint, but just to the right on one rock is a peace sign.

“That we say is historic, a sign of the times they lived in,” he said. “I suppose if you really want to twist it you could say this eventually might be a sign of the times, too.”


Author: Jennifer Medina | Source: The New York Times [January 06, 2011]


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