We have previously discussed the increasing appearance of graffiti in our national and state parks. As is well known on this blog, hiking is my passion and there is nothing more crushing than to see juvenile carvings and writings on trees and rocks in parks. Most recently, the Frame Arch was defaced by graffiti. I have written that the scourge of graffiti is due to the low detection rate and even lower penalties for those committing these crimes. The most recent case demonstrates vividly how the government still treats the crime as a minor matter. In a rare case of self-incrimination, Actress Vanessa Hudgens posted a picture of her carving of a heart into a red rock wall during a trip to Sedona, Arizona on federal park land. However, when nabbed by the federal government, they allowed her to walk with just $1000 donated to a charity.
Hudgens proudly posted her juvenile act a carving bearing the names “Vanessa” and “Austin” on her Instagram page around Valentine’s Day. Viewers reported it to the government and confronted Hudgens who told them where she defaced the rock.
This happens to be one of my favorite areas (and that of many hikers) in northern Arizona where the red rocks are spellbinding . . . until you run into the work of some dysfunctional moron like Hudgens.
With a unique opportunity to convey the costs of such destruction, the government could only issue a citation for a misdemeanor count of damaging a natural feature on U.S. Forest Service land. The trivial amount of money will go to a volunteer group called Friends of the Forest to restore the rock wall. Hudgens will walk away and continue to be the celebrity spokesperson for Neutrogena, which does not appear bothered by the actions of their star. In the meantime, all of Hudgens’ teenage groupies have learned a critical message: that, even when caught literally red handed, the penalty for destroying natural sites is a mere pittance.
A federal magistrate in Flagstaff approved this joke of a penalty on April 19th and Hudgens has remained silent after her representative cut a check for a grand.
Yet, damaging a natural feature is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. So a celebrity defaces a park and self-incriminates herself with a self-obsessed posting. The government could have made a statement by insisting on a short jail stint. I have long argued that we need to increase those penalties to the level of a serious felony — as would we destroying or defacing a great piece of art in a museum. There is a long-standing theory that deterrence is a balance of the size of the penalty and the rate of detection. As detection rates fell, penalties are increased to maintain the level of deterrence. Since these are often remote areas, detection is very low. We also need to create units that can target areas of graffiti with special cameras and surveillance to catch and then guarantee prosecution of such individuals. This should include a campaign to enlist hikers to take pictures of people defacing natural areas and sending those pictures to rangers. The Park Service needs to place advertisements on these efforts in leading hiking magazines.
The irony is that the laughable penalty for Hudgens has achieved the very opposite result: confirming that this crime is not only rarely detected but lightly punished. It is the perfect combination to ensure more criminal conduct by juveniles like Hudgens who see a beautiful natural setting and want to carve their names into it.