In a 1,000-year-old American Indian village at Sequoia National Park, an archaeologist in September found the words "Villa dad and Isiah 09" scratched into the granite.
It clearly was not the work of city gangs, authorities said, but the vandalism was disturbing nonetheless. It was next to centuries-old pictographs, or rock art, considered sacred and irreplaceable among area tribal members.
Authorities quickly removed or obscured the scratched words and asked themselves a question as perennial as spring thaw in Sequoia.
Do people realize they're breaking the law by scratching their names into granite walls or carving initials into giant sequoias at a national park? Maybe not, say National Park Service officials.
Over the last decade, rangers and park service officials say they've seen no slowdown in this behavior, though federal officials do not not keep statistics.
Gang tagging is part of the problem, especially in urban-area parks, monuments and recreation areas. But those were not gang symbols in the Sequoia granite.
Children and adolescents from middle-class homes as well as older visitors are vandalizing these protected places, too.
"A lot of people are neutral about whether it's wrong or not — some think it's part of their outdoor experience," said Sequoia spokeswoman Adrienne Freeman. But "it is a crime. The cumulative effect is very destructive."
There are degrees of this vandalism. Every few years, someone goes on a graffiti spree, marring several Sequoia sites in a single day. That is considered a felony, a serious crime punishable by hefty fines and possible prison time.
But each year there are dozens of smaller offenses by people who simply leave their initials and a date to commemorate their visit to the Sequoia wilderness. Many are investigated and prosecuted. Some cases result in fines and even jail time.
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