Vandalism is on the rise in Coconino National Forest

Four years older than the state of Arizona itself, the Coconino National Forest has always been a point of pride for the Copper State and its people. 

Despite this, it is no stranger to vandalism. The 1987 Forest Plan, which has served as a blueprint for conservation efforts in this forest, establishes vandalism as a top priority which the United States Forest Service (USFS) is tasked with preventing.

Brady Smith, the public affairs officer for Coconino National Forest, said the term vandalism can cover a number of things from the innocuous to the severe. In fact, he said some hikers do not even know what they are doing is considered vandalism. 

For instance, graffiti, which includes both spray paint and rock etching, piles up like garbage left outside of a campsite, Smith said. Visitors who see one person’s name carved onto a rock will assume this is the norm and carve theirs as well. 

Cleaning etchings, in particular, is costly and in certain cases, dangerous. Some etchings must be sandblasted off — a process which requires the transportation not only of a sandblaster, but also of a generator to power it and a crew to use it safely in potentially treacherous parts of the wilderness.

Most commonly, this cleaning is done by a volunteer organization such as Friends of the Forest Sedona. Jerry Piepiora has been the manager of Friends of the Forest Sedona’s graffiti removal team for seven years and has worked with them for the past 15. 

Piepiora said the efforts by the Friends of the Forest Sedona has taken on to clean up the vandalism takes a massive amount of work which is done on an almost daily basis to keep up with the damage done to the Sedona area. 

Piepiora said Friends of the Forest Sedona does an excess of 30,000 hours of work a year helping the USFS. Approximately 2,000 of those hours are spent cleaning graffiti alone.

The cost of repairing damage can pile up fast. Smith said the Coconino National Forest receives a budget of 20 million dollars annually from the Department of Agriculture. This is meant to be spent on everything from education programs to prescribed burns, however each year anywhere from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars are diverted to vandalism cleanup.

Smith pointed to social media as a major contributor to vandalism. This is one of the reasons why the Red Rock District has suffered vandalism at a higher rate than its siblings, the Flagstaff District and the Mogollon Rim District. 

Most of Coconino National Forest is visited by regional tourists, however the Red Rock District — centered around Sedona — receives visitors from all over the world. The popularity of this area is largely due to its rise to stardom on social media. Piepiora elaborated on this by  discussing the overwhelming task Friends of the Forest Sedona is faced with.

“How do you handle going from five or six hundred tourists in a year to 2 million,” Piepiora said.

This state of fame has led to a drastic increase in foot traffic through the Red Rock District, especially within the small shops which line Sedona’s Main Street.

“When you have one person or two people walking over a patch of grass that’s not going to cause much damage, but if you have one hundred or two hundred people it can cause more impacts,” Smith said. 

Both Piepiora and Smith stressed how important it is to leave no trace, in order to keep Coconino National Forest safe. After all, every dollar spent cleaning up graffiti or repairing a bullet riddled sign is one less which can be spent keeping the Coconino National Forest safe.

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