Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Saguaro Graffiti Vandal Arrested, Despite Inept National Park Service

Saguaro National Park is notified that the Tucson cops have cracked the case.

I'm sure that the inept National Park Service rangers based at Saguaro National Park East in Tucson are hoping to salvage some credit today from news that the Tucson police department, which is an actual competent agency, has arrested a suspect in the ugly graffiti defacing of giant saguaro cactuses on the Douglas Spring trail at the park in mid-May.

We'll see to what extent the local media in Tucson let them get away with any hilarious claim by National Park rangers that they behaved in a professional, let alone competent, manner in this case.

Yesterday, the Tucson police arrested a 16-year-old with a history of graffiti vandalism in the city and charged him with felony counts in the National Park incident, in which about 15 saguaros and some rocks and signs were spray-painted with graffiti, including the tag "SOMA," which turns out to mean Society of Mexican Americans, according to the Tucson police officer who made the case, Abel Urzua.

Urzua told a Tucson TV station yesterday that he recognized the tag pattern way back in mid-May, when he saw the photos of the vandalized graffiti "in the paper."

That would be in the Arizona Daily Star, which ran big photos of the vandalism on its front page on May 13, the day after the vandalism was reported along the Douglas Spring trail by a volunteer park ranger. Photos that were taken by me, incidentally.

And therein lies a tale, told here previously.

I was the volunteer ranger who reported the vandalism on Sunday, May 12, when I was on duty at the Douglas Spring trailhead that morning and heard from hikers about the defaced saguaros starting at about a mile up the hilly trail.

I hiked up to investigate, and took photos of the vandalism. While on duty, I also made repeated attempts to alert park officials about the incident. There was no response. Following protocol, I also called 911, and a sheriff's deputy did respond, but told me he had no jurisdiction. Finally, as I was going off duty at noon, I did reach the ranger on duty, Steve Brolyard.

I told Brolyard about the incident, and said I had taken photos and detailed notes. He said he was aware that I had earlier made calls to the Park visitors center, but he expressed no interest in my report. Nor did he express interest in my offer to come by the visitor's center to give them my photos.

Photo by Joe Sharkey
So I told Brolyard that since he evidently wasn't interested, I would instead contact the local media when I went off-duty. He made no objection to that, incidentally.

So later in the afternoon, I sent the photos to the Arizona Daily Star, where I know a few people.  They also called me for a brief interview in which I simply stated the facts as I knew them. I also called a local TV station, KOLD, which sent a reporter and a cameraman out, and I led them up the trail and showed them where the vandalized cactuses were.

The TV report ran that night, and the next day the Star had the story prominently displayed, with my photos, on the front page. As far as I was concerned, I had done my duty as a citizen and as a journalist.

Ah, but as the old saying has it, no good deed goes unpunished! On Monday, park rangers reported to work at the visitors center and, seeing my photos in the paper, they made a poor choice. They went into a defensive crouch and a cover-up, blaming the messenger for publicizing the vandalism rather than doing the smart thing, which would have been to get ahead of the story that they were now a day behind on.

Missed opportunity! Even though they were a day late on the story (which they themselves publicized on Monday), it would have been a splendid opportunity for the Park Service rangers to discuss with the media the effects of budget cutbacks for staffing and maintenance at the National Park Service.

But no, they had to shoot the messenger instead, and decided to cover up the obvious fact that they dropped the ball on the first day. Their concern was: How dare a park volunteer "approach the media" without authorization, as it was put to me by the head ranger a few days later.

Huh? But I am the media, I replied. Over forty years with major news organizations, I said. I never agreed to be muzzled when I signed up as a volunteer, nor would I have considered any such agreement.  And, I pointed out, you guys expressed no interest whatsoever in my report on Sunday, before I did contact the local media.
Photo by Joe Sharkey
During the week, the defensive coverup was led by a ranger named Andy Fisher, who calls herself the "chief interpretation and outreach officer" at Saguaro National Park East, where she is actually the PR flack. So the National Park worthies went after me, instead of the graffiti vandal. The position of the rangers who confronted me during that week was that, one, I had no right to talk to the media; two, my doing so had somehow "impeded" their "investigation" -- an "investigation" that so far had consisted mainly of confronting me; and three, I had somehow failed to follow "procedures" in reporting the incident on Sunday -- even though I made a half dozen phone calls to various Park Service numbers, met with a deputy sheriff at the scene, and spoke personally to the ranger on duty, Brolyard!

Several days of this ridiculousness ensued, and finally I was asked to come in for a "meeting" at the Saguaro National Park East visitor center and staff headquarters on Thursday, with Fisher and with a ranger in charge named Paul Austin. Austin showed up in the conference room wearing a bulletproof vest that he made a ceremony of removing, presumably having determined that I was not a danger. That meeting, I quickly realized, was nothing more than a disciplinary hearing, at which I was expected to recant my actions and promise not to ever "approach the media" again.  After some back and forth on this, I finally walked out of this absurd session in disgust.

The next day, I got a phone call from Ranger Michelle Uhr, who runs the program in which I was proud to be a volunteer mounted ranger. She fired me. "We can't have you representing us as a volunteer anymore," said the hapless Uhr,  a normally pleasant woman who sounded as if she were speaking on the phone to me with a ranger boss glowering over her shoulder.

OK, that's all water under the bridge now -- though I would point out that since that incident, Saguaro National Park East is minus one dedicated volunteer, at a time when basic staffing is at a critical low.
PARK SERVICE FINALLY TAKES ACTION -- Right, they have now put up a stern sign warning future would-be graffiti vandals at the Douglas Spring trailhead. (Photo by Joe Sharkey) 

I do intend to file a Freedom of Information petition and follow up with a magazine article, and have informed "Chief Interpretation and Outreach Officer" Fisher that she is legally required to keep all records of the various encounters the Park Service had with me over this incident. She hasn't responded to that -- though she has falsely maintained in media interviews that I failed to follow some phantom "procedures."

Well, long story short: I'm glad the Tucson Police Department finally cracked the case.

Meanwhile, as the Daily Star reports today, "staffers are still trying to figure out the best way to clean the saguaros, said Andy Fisher, spokeswoman for Saguaro National Park."

Because, as the asinine way the Park Service handled this case shows, all the fatuous PR in the world won't erase a fundamental problem that you fail to address.


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