Legacy of Destruction: Who Does Vandalism on Public Land Really Hurt?

It was a dark and stormy night. The group huddled around a smoking fire to ward off the encroaching cold that seeped in through the cracks in the rustic cabin. Major drafts had been stopped up by signs that the wanderers had torn down to block windows and crevices. Intent upon survival, the campers pushed toward the heat that generated from a fire burning directly on the cabin floor, waving smoke upward toward a hole they had cut into the primitive chimney. It makes sense, taking things apart in order to survive, doing irreparable damage to save a life. Except there were no lives in jeopardy and there was nothing to survive.

A few miles down the road, warm beds, cheery restaurants, and cozy couches waited for the survivors to emerge from their experience in the “wild.” Right outside the cabin, their four-wheel drive SUVs and lifted pickup trucks sat parked all cattywampus on top of whatever features had once been placed there, designed for public enjoyment.

The cabin was reconstructed painstakingly by public employees to model a historic homestead, meant for day use and free-of-charge for visitors to the Big Meadow Lake Campground on the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington. When the “survivors” left after Memorial Day weekend, a trail of empty beer cans and trash strewn in their wake; the cabin was nearly beyond salvaging, rendering countless volunteer hours of construction, repair, and maintenance work wasted.


Photo of broken windows on a fire lookout tower.
Broken windows. // Photo courtesy of the US Forest Service.

“The Big Meadow Lake recreation area provides a ton of amenities for free,” says Craig Newman, the staff officer for the Colville National Forest, the entity responsible for management of the land around Big Meadow Lake. “Free campground, day use, boat ramp, fishing dock, trails (some paved), wildlife observation tower, toilets, and the day-use cabin. Some of these features were envisioned and constructed through community partnerships,” says Newman. Right now the amenities at Big Meadow Lake are maintained and managed using taxpayer dollars as opposed to user fees. “When these sites are damaged or just need regular maintenance, it comes out of all of our (taxpayer’s) wallets, whether we use the sites or not.” If the cabin can be repaired, which remains in question, it will come at the greatest expense to the local camper, hiker, and hunter—the taxpayer. This is the consequence that reckless campers and vandals inflict on the people with whom they share the land.

North of Big Meadow Lake near the Canadian border, the recently-restored Salmo Lookout tower northeast of Sullivan Lake also had its shutters and windows destroyed by vandals. “Our crews had just done a restoration last year that cost $17,000,” says Colville National Forest law enforcement officer Will Markwardt. “The bid for repairs now is $11,300.”

There were plans for the historic tower to be open in the near future for overnight camping rentals, an inexpensive way for visitors to enjoy the history and scenery of the area while generating some revenue for the operation and maintenance of the lookout. Those plans have been pushed back thanks to two suspects, whom the forest service plans to charge with a felony.

All of the damages sustained on forest service lands and property are made worse by the fact that the funds that are needed to complete repairs are dwindling. “The Forest’s allocated budget for Recreation, Heritage, and Wilderness program management has decreased in the last 5 years from about $800,000 to around $300,000. Similarly, the Forest’s budget for trail maintenance and operations has declined in the last 5 years from the $300,000-500,000 range to around $100,000,” adds Newman.

At the end of the day, when visitors to the Colville National Forest, or any other public lands, leave a trail of destruction behind them, it’s the rest of us who foot the bill. And it’s our taxpayer money that reckless visitors are wasting on a few moments of ill-advised activity. National Forest lands are ours. The resources belong to every taxpayer, and the damages that they endure are inflicted upon all of us who seek to enjoy them and gain productive use from them. Vandalism sends no message to “The Man” or big government. It punishes the people who live and travel through the precious wild areas that belong to all of us. // (Liv Stecker)


Liv Stecker is a freelance writer in northeast Washington who travels the country all summer as a wildland firefighter and across the world all winter as a wandering storyteller. She is an expert on beer, eating, and how not to do lots of things. You can learn from her mistakes at www.livstecker.com.

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