House Natural Resources Committee Discusses Park Vandalism Bill

Goblin Valley State Park
Goblin Valley State Park

[pullquote]”A rock is a rock is a rock.”    -Representative Mel Brown [/pullquote]”A rock is a rock is a rock,” Representative Mel Brown (Republican – Coalville) said on Thursday. He was discussing HB 68 – Protection of State Park Resources, a bill that would create greater punishments for anyone who vandalizes natural or man-made antiquities in Utah state parks. “I’ve seen them, I know what you’re talking about. But it is still a rock,” Brown added.

Vandalism at state parks became a very public issue last year, after two scout leaders were caught on camera knocking over a 20 million year old “goblin” rock formation at Goblin Valley State Park. The alleged act of vandalism was uploaded to Youtube where it received the ire of the world. In the following weeks after the video, the two men were expelled from their positions as scout leaders, and were charged with felony counts of criminal mischief by the state of Utah. The two are due in court in March.

Sponsored by Representative Dixon Pitcher (Republican – Ogden), HB 68 clarifies criminal mischief statutes to include antiquities, with the punishment ranging from class A misdemeanor to a second degree felony for damages greater than $1,500. “We want to have a level of penalty [for] those who destroy the higher valued [formations]. We need something that deals with the antiquity,” said Pitcher. 

But despite the outcry over the Goblin Valley incident, the bill faced heavy push back from some of Representative Pitcher’s Republican colleagues. “You kick over a dirt clod and that could be called a formation,” said Representative Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan). “Where [the proposed bill] says ‘any’ and there is no qualification to what that may be, do the terms ‘geological area site, feature [or] formation’ [prove] sufficient for the things that brought this forward?”

Fred Hayes, the Director of Utah State Parks, said that while term “any geological formation” is a broad term, but seeing it as potential for abuse of the law was “splitting hairs.” Hayes also noted that when they decided on what charges to pursue in the Goblin Valley case, they discovered that no federal or state laws specifically address the issue of irreplaceable park vandalism.

Representative Mike Noel (Republican – Kanab) said that his issue with the bill was whether the crime fit the punishment. He believes that the bill’s threshold of $1,500 worth of damage is far too low. “That could be just about anything,” says Noel. “We’re talking about maybe getting drunk and running into a park pavilion, and that is a felony?” Noel said he’s worried the bill could ruin someone’s life quite easily, pointing to the Boy Scout leaders who are now facing felony charges. “I want to send a message here, but I don’t want to fill the prisons full of people who have never committed a crime in their life until they did something stupid, like this,” said Noel.

Pitcher responded to Noel’s questions, pointing out that the bill doesn’t raise the penalties for the crime, it just codifies and clarifies the crime.

The bill was placed on hold for consideration at a later committee hearing.

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