The Flora, Fauna and Vandalism of Red Rock

Graffiti and trash in the canyon accumulate faster than the BLM can clean them up

Traversing the trails of Red Rock Canyon, hikers encounter Joshua trees, desert tortoises, yucca plants and even the occasional bighorn sheep. The Native American tribes who made the canyon their home left petroglyphs etched into the gray limestone and Aztec sandstone. These days, many visitors are adding their own markings to the canyon’s rocks, making graffiti almost as common a sight as flora, fauna and wildlife.

For more than 40 years, the Bureau of Land Management has protected the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area just outside Las Vegas. One of their constant battles is to keep pace with the amount of tagging in the park.

“Graffiti is severe,” park ranger Kate Sorom says. “We can’t keep up with it. … Every time I turn around, I’ve got another volunteer, another hiker or visitor coming in and saying, ‘We found graffiti at Ice Box,’ or ‘We found graffiti at Pine Creek.’”

Many visitors may think marking the canyon’s sandstone is acceptable because they see graffiti across the park. Vandals also carve their names into the sandstone.

“Unfortunately, some of it is monkey-see, monkey-do kind of stuff, where somebody has scribbled their first name and the date, or ‘Jim Loves Jill,’ and somebody else will go, ‘Oh, hey, it must be appropriate,’ and then they do it,” Sorom says. “Then the next person comes along and they do it. … We just can’t get out there fast enough.”

Concerned citizens often volunteer to clean up the graffiti, but with a limited staff, the BLM is only able to offer graffiti removal training sporadically. The removal process involves scrubbing the markers or spray paint with wire brushes, water and a soy-based, environmentally friendly chemical remover.

“Sandstone is so porous that it’s very difficult to remove [graffiti] because the marker or spray paint just soaks into the rock,” Sorom says. “You literally have to remove a good portion of the rock to remove the graffiti.”

Illegal dumping is also an issue at Red Rock, although littering is more common outside of the park’s scenic drive. BLM officials find discarded shooting targets like old television sets and computer monitors in a nearby wash, along with common trash such as food wrappers.

Signs placed around Red Rock warn visitors against graffiti and illegal dumping, though it appears the warnings are often ignored. To actively combat Nevada’s littering problem, the Southern Nevada Agency Partnership created the Take Pride in America in Southern Nevada Team in 2005, and launched the “Don’t Trash Nevada” campaign shortly thereafter. The campaign spreads awareness about respecting the desert via television ads and clean-up events. Nevadans are also encouraged to clean up the park on annual Make a Difference Day, a national day of volunteering set for Oct. 23 this year.

Sorom says public lands throughout the country are plagued by the same kinds of graffiti and littering issues she sees in Red Rock. The BLM hopes punishments will deter would-be graffiti artists and litterers: Those caught engaging in tagging or illegal dumping face misdemeanor charges, including community service, fines and even jail time.