Don’t Mess with County Parks

This is one of those upsetting stories with a bit of a happy twist. It appeared in The Living Land column in The Hawk Eye today.

A couple weeks ago, a staff member stumbled on a rather disturbing scene at the “cave” called Devil’s Kitchen inside Starr’s Cave Park and Preserve (it’s not technically a cave, but close). Someone had taken purple spray paint to the rock faces of the popular exploration site tucked away deep in the preserve. We don’t know who did it or even when it happened. As you’d expect, we don’t get back there very much in the winter.

Unfortunately, such is the risk with public land. I think most people would be surprised at the sheer amount of vandalism, littering, dumping, parking-lot-cookie-cutting, and sign shooting that happens on public areas. It’s a pretty common occurrence but seldom are the “crimes” as grievous as spray painting geologic rock formations.

When those big crimes happen, we often turn to social media not just to share in the collective disappointment that the acts of a few can spoil a place for the many, but to maybe also generate leads in the off chance the culprits can be found and brought to justice.

So, just before lunchtime on a Saturday, our Naturalist posted a couple pictures with a Facebook post that read, “This is not how we respect our natural resources! This is graffiti on the entrance and interior to Devils Kitchen.” Over the course of remaining weekend, I watched with more than a bit of pride as my community weighed in.

The post didn’t exactly go viral, but the number of views it got is pretty big by our page standards. It would appear that messing with one of the community’s favorite county parks is a sure way to illicit the ire of the local masses.

Dozens of versions of “So sad” and “So disrespectful” followed in the comment section.

Then there were the comments like “Find them,” referring to the culprits, to which one commenter requested “a little alone time with them” were that to happen.

I’m sure they just want to have a little fatherly discussion with them about making good life choices.

While comments like those are the expected expression of our collective sentiment toward the situation, what really swelled my pride was the number of comments that actually offered help.

Almost immediately, we saw comments such as “Willing to help come scrub or donate for supplies!” and “Can I donate money to have this fixed?”

One commenter even offered to donate a pressure washer and another offered to bring out a group of Boy Scouts to help clean it up.

Talk about pride in your parks!

Even more pride-inducing is how this kind of thing bucks the trend of what we often see on social media. All too often the masses are quick to weigh in with sentiments and opinions but little more. But when it comes to local county parks, the community steps up with an offer to actually do something.

So it begs the question: Why?

I suspect everyone has their own reasons, but in general I think those of us that visit local parks feel a sense of ownership in them. Technically, we’re all co-owners of those public places. Places like Starr’s Cave are extensions of our backyards, even if we don’t live nearby. Few, if any of us, have the means to acquire our own 180 acres, let alone that amount of acreage complete with explorable caves along some of the most scenic bluffs Flint Creek has to offer.

The trail leading up to the bridge to Starr's Cave itself.
But when places like Starr’s Cave Park are put into the public trust, it’s no wonder that a fair number of the estimated 30,000 visitors the place gets annually feel a great sense of ownership in it. In that respect, I guess the outpouring of support and offers to help should come as no surprise. What would you do if that kind of vandalism happened in your backyard?

We don’t know yet how best to go about removing the graffiti. We’d like to remove it with as little impact to the natural features as possible. So maybe Boy Scouts with wire brushes is the way to go. We’re still looking into it and we’ll take folks up on some of those offers to help once we figure it out.

Until then, all I can offer is a pride-filled “Thank You” to a community that clearly loves its county parks. That, and a plea to leave the “fatherly discussions” up to the authorities.

To offer assistance or if you have information that may help in identifying those responsible for the vandalism, contact Des Moines County Conservation at (319) 753-8260 or hit us up online (we have Facebook pages for both Starr's Cave Nature Center and Des Moines County Conservation).