Update 2/24/23: The National Parks Traveler picked up this story and put a national spotlight on the “paint-can-carrying hiker” who has been putting bright red blazes on rock cairns and trees in the park.
Update 2/24/23: Spring Trail added to list of damaged trails.
Winter is not even off-season for vandalism in Acadia.
Bright red paint defacing about two miles along the Spring Trail, the Penobscot Mountain Trail on the south ridge of the mountain and the Deer Brook Trail has been reported to the National Park Service, which is now investigating.
The illegal red rectangular blazes frequently were painted right next to the park’s official sky-blue blazes on the historic hiking trails, according to photos posted on Facebook by a hiker and provided to Friends of Acadia and the park in early February. At least three dozen historic-style cairns, trees and bedrock locations were painted with the red blazes, according to interviews with two hikers who took photos.
This is the latest example of a growing problem in Acadia and other national parks, with vandals defacing the landscape with paint, rock stacking and even human and pet waste. Now, the vandalism in Acadia has happened in the dead of winter, when the hiking trails are often little used and icy.
The illegal painting off Penobscot, the fifth highest mountain in Acadia, follows a rise in the number of citations issued by the National Park Service for vandalism in Acadia over the past two years, compared to the three prior years, according to park statistics.
Graffiti, rock stacking and human waste among vandalism in Acadia
Similar illegal trailblazing with greenish-blue paint occurred three years ago over about five miles of hiking trails on the Champlain North Ridge, Bald Peak and Huguenot Head, requiring substantial work to clean.
This winter’s red paint marring Penobscot’s trails comes after a tourist season hampered by massive and ongoing rock stacking on Bar Island, endangering coastal habitat; graffiti on ancient volcanic rock next to a trail on Pemetic Mountain, a very destructive example of Acadia vandalism; and an increase in human waste found off the trails.
Amanda Pollock, public affairs officer for Acadia National Park, declined to comment at length about the illegal painting off Penobscot.
“The park is aware of the activity,” Pollock wrote in an email. “Currently, the park does not have comment on any on-going investigations regarding the illegal red trailblazing within the park.”
Citations rise for vandalism in Acadia from three years ago
Pollock released park statistics that show citations for vandalism in Acadia rose to nine in 2021 and then seven in 2022. While the numbers dropped slightly from 2021 to 2022, there were no citations for vandalism in both 2018 and 2019 and only one in 2020.
Under the code of federal regulations, vandalism in Acadia is a federal misdemeanor and carries a penalty of up to $150 plus processing fees for each violation of property damage under $250. A mandatory court appearance, with a possible jail sentence up to six months, is required for a violation over $250.
The illegal painting off Penobscot comes amid continuing reports of violations of federal regulations including litter such as dog waste bags and snack wrappers, illegal camping, rock stacking, the placing of painted stones on trails and other acts of vandalism. Drones, which are illegal to launch, land or operate in National Parks unless approved by a superintendent, have also been spotted by visitors, including one this month at Bass Harbor Head Light.
Summit stewards for the Friends of Acadia even reported an increase in finding human waste off the hiking trails last season, the second busiest ever in Acadia with 3.97 million visits.
In other violations, Acadia rangers issued 22 citations for illegal camping in 2022 and 28 in 2021. During the pandemic in 2020, when NPS campgrounds were closed, citations for illegal camping came to 24, after 74 citations in 2019 and 28 in 2018.
Citations for litter in Acadia National Park totaled five in 2022, six in 2021, four in 2020, seven in 2019 and five in 2018, according to the park’s statistics.
Vandalism in Acadia damages ancient rocks, fragile habitat
Bar Island, reached during low tide over one of Acadia’s oldest hiking trails, was marred by remarkably large – as high as 5 feet in one case – and constant rock stacking last summer and fall after someone removed an NPS sign that warned against stacking or removing cobbles. Acadia rules prohibit rock stacking because it can disturb soils, cause erosion and damage wildlife and fragile habitat.
Other vandalism occurred late last summer when graffiti was carved on ancient rock formations near the peak of Pemetic Mountain right next to the Pemetic South Ridge Trail.
After photos of the graffiti were posted on Facebook, a summit steward for the Friends of Acadia hiked up Pemetic and photographed the graffiti, which was carved into a geological feature known as a basalt dike, according to Stephanie Ley, the summit steward coordinator for Friends of Acadia.
That type of vandalism in Acadia is unusual, maybe the first of its type she has seen, and the photos of the damage to the rocks are etched into her memory, Ley said.
Starting in 2021, due to the nature of their work, summit stewards also increasingly found a grim form of litter: human waste, frequently located off a “social trail,” an informal side path that can be created by foot traffic. One job of summit stewards is to cover up social trails to prevent further erosion.
“One trend we have noticed is the amount of human waste in the park,” said Ley, who supervises seven summit stewards each year.
Illegal red paint mars south ridge of Penobscot Mountain
Ley said it was also upsetting to see a hiker’s photos of the illegal red paint blazing off Penobscot, especially one red slash on a Bates-style cairn located right next to an NPS sign asking people “to leave cairns as you find them.”
The cairns were restored in Acadia more than 20 years ago in the same style designed by Waldron Bates, a leading early 20th century trail builder on Mount Desert Island, and they are monitored and repaired if needed each year by summit stewards and park volunteers called Waldron’s Warriors.
While stones on the cairns can be replaced, Ley noted it takes a lot of work to remove paint damage from bedrock. In August 2020, two volunteers spent about 10 hours using an organic solution to wash off about 50 of the spray-painted blazes on the bedrock along the Champlain North Ridge Trail.
Kevin Young of Ellsworth, a longtime hiker in Acadia, was the first to report the illegal red paint on the Penobscot South Ridge and post photos on the Acadia National Park Hiking Facebook group. He noted that the red blazes appeared to be spray painted and served no purpose.
Amy Faber, a hiker from Bar Harbor, also said she saw the red paint on about a quarter mile of the Spring Trail on Jan. 21. The Spring Trail ends at an intersection with the Penobscot Mountain Trail, which continues along the south ridge to the peak.
During a Feb. 2 hike, Young noted that he saw the illegal red blazes on at least four to five cairns, maybe more, and 15 places on the bedrock, sometimes next to a sky-blue blaze, with other illegal blazes likely covered by snow.
Jennifer Britz, race director and director of youth sports for the MDI YMCA, told us she was running in spikes on the same day and saw the red paint on the south ridge of Penobscot and also on the descent along the Deer Brook Trail down to a carriage road above Jordan Pond. Last week, she added, she saw the red paint on many trees and some rocks on the Deer Brook Trail, while coming down a bit slower.
Rock stacking plagues Bar Island after NPS sign removed
Ley, the summit steward coordinator since 2017, said summit stewards dismantled 737 rock stacks in 2022 around Acadia.
Bar island was the hot spot for rock stacking last year, but it also occurs in other places such, as Ship Harbor, areas off Ocean Path, Wonderland and near the west lot on Cadillac Mountain, Ley said. Summit stewards removed rock stacks on Bar Island three or four times last year, but each time people again built rock stacks including once by the following morning.
Summit stewards spend thousands of hours each summer and fall on Acadia’s summits and trails, answering visitor questions, conducting basic trail maintenance, repairing cairns, removing visitor-built cairns and rock art, responding to emergencies, communicating with park managers, and collecting social science data, according to the web site of Friends of Acadia. Stewards often meet and talk with visitors and Ley said she believes that rock stacking at Ship Harbor has been reduced over the years by stewards’ education of visitors on leave no trace principles.
Ley said she has been communicating with the National Park Service about possibly putting up a new sign to discourage rock stacking on Bar Island. Someone had blotted out a years-old NPS sign that asked people not to remove or stack cobbles and the sign was later removed.
Ley said there were “some massive stacks” on Bar Island, including tall conical cairns and wide circles of stones, and it wasn’t easy to dismantle them and disperse the rocks in a natural way to appear as if spread by waves.
Vandalism in Acadia emblematic of problem in other National Parks
Pollock, the public affairs officer for Acadia National Park, noted that litter, vandalism, rock stacking, illegal camping and other issues are not new for Acadia and many are prevalent in parks across the country.
She added that it is important to note that data on illegal activities such as litter and vandalism does not necessarily tell the whole story since crimes are not always reported to the park.
If hikers or other visitors can safely dismantle rock stacks at Bar Island or other locations, they can do so, she added.
“When people create rock stacks or bring in painted rocks, they are intentionally changing the natural environment and intentionally/unintentionally encouraging others to do the same,” Pollock wrote in an email. “Changing the natural environment can affect erosion, but more importantly, changes to an ecosystem can drastically affect wildlife.”
Pollack added that the public can help keep the park safe and beautiful by leading by example, including by appropriately disposing of trash and following leave no trace practices. In the summer, Pollack stated, trash cans fill more quickly due to increased traffic and in the winter, staff often find green dog waste bags along the roads when trash cans are not available.
More destruction on Acadia hiking trails comes with more visitors
Tim Henderson, who will be volunteering for his eighth season as a Waldron’s Warrior at Acadia, told us that there is more destruction on the trails, but also more people visiting. “With one comes the other,” he noted.
Many visitors are new to hiking and may be less informed about leave no trace principles, Henderson added.
“There has certainly been more trash, a preponderance of rock stacks and increased cairn destruction,” he told us.
Acadia does not have data at this time on drone use in the park, according to Pollock. Henderson said he has seen them in the sky above the Maine national park. We were also buzzed by a drone while among a crowd on Cadillac Mountain summit the end of last August.
Even in the winter, a low-flying humming drone broke the peace of a sunset at Bass Harbor Head Light on Feb. 1 for Whitney Grace, a labor and delivery nurse from Merrimac, MA. who said she was unaware drones are illegal to use in national parks. The drone lingered for the entire sunset and flew just overhead while she was alone on the rocks below the historic light house, she told us.
“I didn’t see who was flying it until I got back to the Bass Harbor parking lot, the drone now hovering over his car before it came down to him,” she noted.
Tip line for reporting illegal activities in a National Park
Park rangers encourage the public to provide information about any kind of illegal activity in the park, according to Pollock. People can call the NPS non-emergency line at 207-288-8791 or an NPS anonymous tip line at 888-653-0009. People can also submit an online form or call 911 in the event of an emergency.
Rock stacks are also a problem at Schoodic, especially at the pullout by the Alder trailhead.
For those who know and love Acadia, old trails are a dilemma. Only about half of Acadia’s original trail network is maintained by the park service. In recent years the park’s trails crew has done a lot of work to reopen and improve old trails such as the Seaside Path, but there remain trails in scenic areas well-known and used by local residents. Popular books have been written about these old trails and the “trail phantoms” who maintain them by putting up modest cairns or preserving cairns that have been in place since the park stopped maintaining those trails. Some of those trails have infrastructure put in place by the original “pathmakers” decades ago. Since the park stopped maintaining those trails, iron rungs have rusted and stairs have eroded, making those trails very dangerous. Search and rescue crews are busy enough during periods of heavy visitation. It is too much to ask them to rescue someone from an unmaintained old trail.
Perhaps those who love old trails should at least refrain from maintaining or adding to those old cairns and stay away from old trails they know to be dangerous.
Thanks for the comment, Jim. The red paint damage, of course, occurred on two well established and well maintained trails. They are the Penobscot Mountain Trail north from the Spring Trail and the Deer Brook Trail, which was rehabbed about 6-7 years ago. When the snow and ice clears, it will allow people to get a better look at the damage on the two trails. We wonder if the vandalism was carried out by the same person who spray painted Champlain North Ridge and Huguenot Head several years ago. The color of the paint is different but the MO is similar, so maybe the vandal was attempting to throw off investigators with a different color of paint. As you point out, there has also been damage to old trails, especially off Champlain.
This breaks my heart. We seem to be in a cycle of ‘Gordon Gekko’ culture, in which a significant segment of the population appears to worship greed and selfishness, and scoff at common good. Gekko was a caricature to be mocked and pitied in the movie, and I do feel pity that highly motivated vandals think they’re making a statement (however obscure) with their crude defacing of national treasures.
Thanks for the comment, Nancy. Very strange and destructive behaviors, that’s for sure.