Earth Notes - Canyon Graffiti

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Corraling Canyon Graffiti

Graffiti isn't something that only happens along inner-city alleyways. Despite advice to leave nothing but footprints, each year thousands of visitors to southwestern natural areas scratch their names into boulders and cliffs rather than into designated trail registers.

The carvings not only mar the scenery. They can also damage rare treasures like pre-Columbian rock art or historic inscriptions records created by missionaries, traders, scientists, and pioneers that add to our knowledge about the past.

Each year volunteers with the Glen Canyon Natural History Association scrub rock surfaces near Lake Powell to remove signs of vandalism. Armed with wire brushes, hammers, squirt bottles, and considerable stamina, they live on a donated houseboat, cleaning thousands of square feet of sandstone tagged mostly by recreational boaters.

The volunteers are trained to spot historic inscriptions, and in September 2006 that training paid off. Near an old ford across the Colorado River, one team discovered a faint Spanish phrase beneath a scrim of modern graffiti.

After undergoing a battery of scientific tests, the inscription was ruled authentic, the only hard evidence left by the passing Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776.

The site's exact location is kept secret. Ironically, the superimposed graffiti camouflages the inscription and might protect it from further vandalism.

Public lands managers struggle with the challenge of maintaining historic sites while keeping them accessible for recreation. Education is an important part of maintaining that balance and so are programs like Glen Canyon's that rely on elbow grease to preserve glimpses of history.

-Michael Engelhard