Refuge Cove vandalism

A log at Refuge Cove State Recreation site is partially cleaned of spray painted grafitti on Thursday. Alaska State Parks staff members are reported increasing amounts of vandalism at Refuge Cove and other State Parks facilities this year. Photo courtesy of Alaska State Parks Natural Resource Specialist Aaron Ostby

The year 2020 has brought many unpleasant surprises to the community, and Alaska State Parks Natural Resource Specialist Aaron Ostby and his crew have been dealing with yet a new one: increased vandalism at the Ketchikan area’s state parks.

Working to remove spray-painted obscene messages and random markings on rocks and logs on Thursday morning in the breezy sunshine at Refuge Cove State Recreation Site, Ostby described the situation.

“It’s just kind of sad, because it’s just been just different use of the park this year,” he said. “A lot of the use and misuse, I think, is related to people just having more time on their hands — people who usually don’t spend time recreating in public spaces who are using these facilities.”

General litter also has increased this year, Ostby added.

Another type of vandalism that has increased this year, Ostby said, was the cutting of both live trees and beach logs.

“It’s a state park,” he stated, adding that cutting wood is strictly prohibited in those areas.

“It was really bad this spring and early summer,” he said. “I don’t know if it was just part of the psychological paranoia that people were going through? LIke, they had to go out and get firewood or something.”

The cutting of live trees was especially troubling, Ostby said.

“A lot of times, these people, they’re not professional tree fallers,” he said, and have created dangerous situations.

Earlier this summer, Ostby said that he saw a stump near the beach surrounded by fresh shavings. When he looked up, he saw the big alder that had been cut, but had gotten snagged in other trees’ branches and was dangling in the air.

“It could have been a hazard to the public if the wind came along,” he said. “Not only is it a hazard to the public, it’s a hazard to us to come and to get thing down to where it’s safe”

Another form of vandalization, especially at Refuge Cove, has been the abandonment of junk cars.

Mid-summer, a sedan was abandoned in the parking lot, and after many attempts to contact the owner, parks staff eventually had to have it towed away.

“That’s an expense that comes back to the parks as well,” Ostby said.  

On Thursday morning, a large RV was parked parallel to the road, at the corner of the parking lot. It had multiple tickets on its windshield and it was stuffed to the windows with what looked like piles of discarded household items.

Ostby said the RV had been left there about two weeks ago.

“If the owner doesn’t claim it, if nobody purchases it at auction, and it has to get destroyed, you know that’s $2,500 potentially of cost that we could be using elsewhere,” Ostby said.

Aside from the wasted money on removing graffiti and vehicles, Ostby said the waste of staff time is a drain on parks staff resources.

That morning, not only was Ostby painting over and grinding away graffiti at the beach, but State Parks Aid Bob Pelkey also was working alongside him.

They deployed a graffiti-removal kit at the site, packed with spray paint to cover graffiti that couldn’t be scrubbed away. Paint remover and other tools rounded out the kit. They were using a hand-held grinder fitted with a steel rotary brush to grind paint off of logs with a generator chugging nearby to run the grinder. Before starting the grinding process on the log, Ostby said he’d spray painted over the message with neutral-colored paint so that visitors to the beach wouldn’t be subjected to it while he worked to completely remove it.

When graffiti is painted on the rocks, which Ostby said are particularly difficult to clean, staff sometimes deploy their artistic skills to match paint to the color of the rocks to simply cover the marks.

Ostby explained that there are repercussions to staff having to spent time cleaning up acts of vandalism at the parks.

“Bob and I could be out doing what we planned on doing this morning, which is trail maintenance at Lunch Creek,” Ostby said, “but instead, we’re down here, burning time and resources.”

Ostby and his staff have been rebuilding the stairway and trail along Lunch Falls near the Settlers Cove State Recreation Site campground.

“It’s unfortunate, because we don’t have a lot of resources, so if we’re spending our time doing this,” he said, indicating the graffiti-removal project, “we can’t do improvements and maintenance.”

He gestured to the several families with young children playing and picnicking on the beach that morning, only a few hundred feet away from the log on which he was working to remove obscene and racially offensive messaging.

“This park’s for everybody. It’s just discouraging,” he said.