During the pandemic national parks became a popular place for people to safely get out of their homes and even do a little safe traveling. The National Park System (or NPS) saw an increase in visitors at parks across the country. 

Unfortunately, with the increase of visitors also came an unexpected downside, an increase in vandalism. 

Nancy Hendricks, Superintendent of the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico thinks it's a matter of education. “I think there were people visiting who just really didn’t understand what we were protecting here,” she says of the recent uptick in vandalism. 

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Carvings at Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
Ancient rock at at Petroglyph national park in New Mexico can be as much as 3000 years old © PhotoAlto / Jerome Gorin / Getty Images

What are petroglyphs?

What Petroglyph National Monument, and sites like it across the country are protecting are the stone carvings and other artwork left behind by ancient peoples. Found in a handful of locations around the world, this ancient rock art was created through a process of picking or abrading away at the darker top layer of rock to expose a lighter color underneath. 

The age of such sites vary, even in an individual site. For example, though the bulk of the artwork found at Petroglyph National Monument dates from between 1300 and 1600, some of it is estimated to date back as far as 3000 years.   

There are thousands of examples of petroglyphs throughout the US National Park System, many of them containing ancient, and in many cases sacred, evidence of human and animal habitation in these areas through the centuries.  

Importance of these sites

Something Hendricks thinks visitors to the park often forget is that in addition to their historical importance, these sites can also have a deep spiritual meaning to some communities as well. 

“They mean something special to everyone,” she explains “But they are sacred to Native Americans and remain today an important part of Native cultural traditions.” She likens the impact of vandalism of these sites to desecrating a church, because of this important spiritual and cultural connection. 

A man is photographing a famous rock full of Petroglyphs Cave Paintings
It's important to say on the trails and only view rock art from a safe distance, so use a camera's zoom lens for close up photos © fitopardo / Getty Images

Tips on how to interact and be respectful with petroglyphs

Hendricks says that helping to preserve these important cultural and spiritual sites is actually pretty easy, parks that have sensitive sites like this within their boundaries have created their guidelines and rules with their preservation in mind. Helping to keep these sites safe is as simple as following the rules, even if the connection isn’t immediately apparent. 

For example stepping off the trail might seem an innocent way to get a closer look at the rock art, however doing so can have devastating consequences as the ground beneath your feet can play a surprisingly vital role. “We’ve had rocks tumble down and have lost petroglyphs, ” Henderson explained “because the vegetation that holds the soil in place has been killed by people trampling on it.”   

Instead, she recommends bringing along binoculars or cameras with a very good zoom lens for up close views and photos. She also cautions against touching the sites, as the oil from your hands can cause damage, changing the color of the rocks in ways that diminish the contrast and makes the art more difficult to see. 

Naturally, painting over or scratching at petroglyphs is something you should never do. 

Petroglyphs on Basalt
Many petroglyphs, like these between 400 and 700 years old carvings damaged by gunshot, can't be repaired once damaged © skibreck / Getty Images

What to do if you see vandalism

At the end of 2021 Big Bend National Park lost a priceless example of a petroglyph dating from 3000 to 8000 years old, to a vandal who scratched names and dates into the fragile site. Petroglyph National Monument has also seen its share of vandalism. “It’s extremely frustrating and challenging for us as park managers to have vandalism and graffiti damage these resources,” says Henderson.

Still she urges park visitors not to approach people that they witness acting inappropriate in the park. Instead, they should get in touch with park rangers as soon as possible. To this end, she recommends taking down the park’s dispatch number, usually located at the park’s trailhead, so that they can send someone.

Henderson urges guests not to do anything that would put them in harm's way or start a confrontation. While a photo of the damage can be helpful, it's important that good Samaritans resist the urge to fix any damage and continue to follow stated park rules, such as staying on the trail, so as not to inadvertently do more harm than good.    

It’s a violation of federal regulations to damage park resources, whether it’s removing things from the park or outright defacing cultural or natural objects and doing so can mean a fine of up to $500 and the possibility of six months jail time. However, for Henderson, the most important message is that “people need to be aware that they should value these resources, because the National Park System is here to protect them for future generations. Once they’re damaged, they’re gone, they’re irreplaceable.”   

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