Beauty of public lands defaced by vandalism

Apgar Campground along the Lochsa River is nestled in a thick grove of cedar and fir trees.

What a place to escape the heat. You can sit in the shade, swim in the river, or wade in shorts and sandals while casting for cutthroat trout.

Our natural resources are so incredible, it's sad they are so vulnerable to vandalism.

We pulled into the campground along U.S. 12 in Lewis and Clark country last week a little before dinner time. We could hear the rushing waters of the Lochsa River. It was a neat place. The highway truck noise was a pain, but what the heck.

We picked out a campsite and I walked down to the fee box and pulled a payment envelope out and filled in all the information.

I was about to drop the envelop in the fee box, but I couldn't find it. Instead, there was a hole in the ground where the fee box post once stood.

Another camper said a pickup truck pulled into the campground the night before, someone got out and attached something to the post, and ripped it out of the ground.

Pretty dumb. Risking a federal offense for maybe $50 or $100?

Then I noticed that the gate to the campground had been smashed like it had been bashed with a monster truck.

Vandalism and destruction on public lands is an ongoing problem, and we saw it in several places on our drive.

The vandalism started with a stop at the Slate Creek Campground along U.S. 95, north of Riggins. A really cool bull trout sign has been riddled with shots.

We found vandalism at almost every place we stopped. A picnic area outhouse along the South Fork of the Clearwater River had bullet holes in the door and windows.

Then I heard of other vandalism along the way at two popular Clearwater National Forest picnic areas east of Kooskia.

Vandals ripped out the bulletin board and stop sign at Tukayetsp'e ("Maggie's Bend"). The large entrance sign in the area also was torn out.

At Three Devils, 17 miles east of Tukayetsp'e, vandals removed all informational signs from the bulletin board and scattered trash throughout the parking lot sometime in July. Then someone drove off the road and damaged soil, trees and shrubs.

"It is very frustrating," said Jon Sering, the state ranger for the Idaho U.S. Bureau of Land Management Office. "One person ruins it for thousands."

Last spring, one of the spotting scopes mounted to an interpretive elk-watching spot along the Banks to Lowman Highway was missing.

Years ago some of the interpretive signs along that highway were ripped out as soon as they went in, according to Dave Olson, a spokesman for the Boise National Forest.

You wonder what the mind set is of those who blast public property? Sering says the typical profile is a young male. Most times alcohol and guns are involved. He says most of the time it's not a protest against the government, just senselessness.

Senseless. I've probably written about vandalism a zillion times over the last 37 years in the newspaper business, and sadly, nothing has changed.

Picnic tables are carved up. Doors are ripped off outhouses. Signs are blasted.

As Olson said, so much damage is done by so few, but it affects so many people.

The sad fact is that with today's meager federal recreation budgets, vandalized resources can't be replaced or repaired for a long time because of a lack of funding.

A shot-up sign may cost $12, but by time you send someone out there to replace it, labor, gasoline and equipment drive the price to $50.

The cost of replacing an outhouse may be $30,000 with today's water quality issues and requirements for access.

Vandalism takes funding from trail maintenance and construction, and interpretive sites. And vandalism has to be repaired quickly, Sering said, because it breeds more vandalism.

It's difficult to curb vandalism because most of the places that get hit are out of the way.

Fines are stiff. A person can get up to 6 months in jail and a fine of $5,000 for causing up to $1,000 in damage. Fines increase as the cost of damage increases and if the misdemeanor turns into a felony.

In some cases the maximum sentence could be 5 years and/or a $250,000 fine.

Still, the only way to stop vandalism is for the public to report the crime.

I think I've been staring at that shot-up bull trout sign for a couple of steelhead seasons now. It makes me mad.

It's so senseless.