Washington state forests are home to gorgeous views, a multitude of recreating opportunities, and, unfortunately, a major vandalism issue. From torn down fences to an abandoned, Costco-sized pallet of sour cream, Larry Raedel, chief law enforcement officer of DNR police, sees vandalism in all shapes and forms on state land.
“It’s a little disheartening when you roll into a really nice, well-developed recreation site and you see that our fence posts have been damaged, our corrals are damaged, our signs are shot up, there’s litter left behind,” Raedel said.
Vandalism has always been an issue, but on some DNR trust lands, it’s become more prevalent due to an influx of patrons. DNR spent over $114,000 on trust land cleanup over the last two years, which doesn’t include money spent on vandalism cleanup at designated DNR recreation sites.
One of the most common forms of vandalism on state lands is trash dumping. People abandon bags of garbage, old mattresses, broken toilets, even hazardous waste. Not only is this an eyesore for those who want to use the sites, but it poses an environmental threat. In 2018, DNR removed five large abandoned barrels full of a water and oil mixture in Capitol State Forest, a biohazard incident that cost nearly $3,000 to deal with.
DNR staff also get regular calls about abandoned vehicles, some that have been set on fire or damaged beyond value. Capitol Forest Recreation Manager Philip Wolff said some parts of the year, they’ll come across one abandoned car a week. These major cleanups are a huge time and resource suck for DNR employees, Wolff said, energy that should be going toward improving public land.
Raedel hears the same response from caught offenders who abandon their trash over and over again: “I thought I could dump out here.” No matter how many times he hears this defense, it always surprises him.
“This is the forest, this is where we come and recreate and enjoy everything that nature has to give us. It just blows us away when we hear those kinds of comments,” he said.
Another type of prevalent vandalism on state lands is damage from irresponsible target shooting. Not only do some shooters leave behind shells and illegal target debris, but many informational signs have been destroyed by bullet holes. The damage to signs is more than a vandalism issue; in some areas, it impedes others’ ability to learn of important messages that may include the basic rules of target shooting, timber harvest information, or trail closure notices.
Vandalism to toilet facilities is also common and costly. Outhouses are regularly covered with graffiti, with damage done to the inside that makes them unusable; this costs around $800 to repair. DNR outhouses have also been blown up with explosives.
Public use impacts
Leah Dobey, DNR’s statewide recreation manager, said vandalism is more than a minor issue. If there are repeated offenses in a specific area, it could eventually lead to public access restrictions.
“People aren’t necessarily thinking about the impacts their actions have on state trust lands and other recreationalists, and there is an impact,” Dobey said. “Anytime our staff are spending their time and our financial resources cleaning up [vandalism], that’s time and funding going towards clean up instead of maintaining and improving our recreation facilities.”
DNR recreation would much rather use their efforts to beautify their sites, Dobey said. Funding that goes toward clean up on recreation sites would usually be used for tasks like trail maintenance, pumping trail toilets, or removing downed hazard trees.
“Restricting public access is not something we want to do,” Dobey said. “But if citizens continually abuse the land and we aren’t able to keep it appropriately cared for, unfortunately that has [resulted in gate closures].”
Raedel leads a 12-officer team, responsible for covering over 160 DNR-managed recreation sites. Although they receive assistance from DNR partners like the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Washington State Patrol, they can’t be everywhere at once. Fortunately, they get help from other policing resources, like trail cameras and helpful citizens.
Increased visitation of public lands can result in a vandalism uptick, but it also provides more opportunity for community accountability. Besides following the rules of “pack in, pack out,” the public can make a difference by supporting the phrase, “If you see something, say something,” Raedel said.
As long as they’re not putting themselves in harm’s way, Raedel encouraged recreationalists to grab a photograph or to write down a description of vandals if they felt comfortable, that way the force can follow up. Members of the public can call 1-855-883-8368 if they see suspicious activity. He hopes additional eyes on the ground can lead to healthier, well-maintained state lands.
Dobey echoed this sentiment, saying that in addition to taking care of their own items on state lands, she hopes recreationalists will help keep their peers accountable.
“I think there is value in self-policing,” Dobey said. “If we get more people who care for the land and think about themselves as stewards for our trust lands, we can all help be part of the solution.”