NPS in Distress: COVID-19 and its Effects on Our National Parks

By Mariana Dominguez ~ When the National Park Service (NPS) was established in 1916 by Woodrow Wilson its intended purpose was “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Over 100 years later, the great outdoors has never been as popular or as important for the nation’s collective well-being than current times when all were required to stay inside for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.During the peak of the pandemic some national parks closed entirely or readjusted schedules for the times. Restrictions have loosened in the past few months and since then visitors have flocked to the parks to enjoy some well-deserved fresh air. Unfortunately, many times some of these visitors leave destruction and trash in their wake, therefore damaging the parks.In late July, Fire Island Lighthouse was defaced with graffiti across its bottom-most day-mark white stripe. In a previous Fire Island News article FINS Superintendent Alexcy Romero stated the incident was part of an ongoing investigation by the National Park Service law enforcement and did not elaborate on what the graffiti said or depicted.The incident reflected a larger trend countrywide of national parks being defaced, trashed or vandalized since the onset of the coronavirus. Some incidents have come as a result of the country’s recent reckoning with systemic racism and may be intended as more of a protest and statement rather than simply a graffiti artist’s tag. For instance, in July, the National Park Service posted on their website that they were “investigating recent graffiti vandalism on the Robert E. Lee statue at Antietam National Battlefield.” Lee was the commander of the Confederate States Army during the Civil War and many statues and monuments of him around the country have been defaced in recent years.There also have been incidents such as the one at Zion National Park, Utah, in early August where the National Park Service sought information about “the vandalism of sandstone.” Six bright blue squares were painted on sandstone in the park. The park service believed the paint was part of a masonry or art project. In previous years there have been numerous cases of artists using national parks as their canvas. One high profile case involved artist Casey Nockett who tagged national parks across the country but added her social media handle to the paintings, which allowed authorities to find her. This type of vandalism can damage the parks permanently and are costly and time consuming to clean up.An article published in July by Time detailed the trash and graffiti pileup occurring at Santa Paula Canyon, California, since the onset of COVID-19. In addition, the article pointed out that the amount of out-of-state visitors to the park had increased dramatically since the onset of the virus.On a recent trip to the Fire Island Lighthouse the pathways were squeaky clean with no trash or debris in site such as the situation at Santa Paula Canyon. The graffiti on the lighthouse had been painted over so that nothing looked amiss. Many visitors milled about the area and all wore masks and adhered to social distancing guidelines. Though it is currently unclear whether the vandalism on the lighthouse was an act of protest, artist tagging or just a random event, even Fire Island was not immune to the national parks’ larger problem. National Park Service maintains a tip line that anyone may call if they have information that could help identify individuals responsible for the vandalism of our national treasures. Callers don’t have to identify who they are but are asked to share what they know so rangers can prevent this from happening in the future. The tip line number is (888) 653-0009