Each year, around half a million people visit Coopers Rock State Forest (CRSF) outside of Morgantown to hike, bike, gaze deep into the Cheat Canyon from the iconic overlook. For countless visitors, this striking forest has served as north-central West Virginia’s adventure haven since 1936.
CRSF contains over 50 miles of trails across 13,000 acres and utilizes structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s. The forest is managed by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) and West Virginia Division of Forestry (WVDF). Management tasks range from closing the gates at dusk and building recreation facilities to wildlife habitat and logging projects. But of all the difficulties encountered in managing a wild ecosystem, one of the most elusive comes in the form of graffiti.
Aside from marring the scenery, graffiti poses problems not only on the aesthetics but on the landscape itself. Some graffiti can harm the environment by exposing trees to pathogens and by disfiguring rocks. The impacts of ruinous artists can be seen throughout the forest on trees, rocks, and man-made structures like pavilions and railings.
For CRSF assistant superintendent Brad Atkins, graffiti is a year-round nuisance that affects him on both a professional and personal level. His efforts to stop vandalism throughout the forest have only yielded temporary relief. Once a site is carved or marked, there isn’t much that can be done to fully restore it. With only three full-time employees at CRSF, finding, catching, and deterring vandals remains a difficult task. “I’m offended and irritated, but realistically this is hard to stop,” said Atkins. “It feels like we’re fighting a losing battle with graffiti.”
Despite the efforts of managers, grafitti has found its way into the darkest recesses of CRSF. Deep in a cave underneath the overlook known among locals as the Devil’s Kitchen, one can find the coldest spot in the forest. The cave is studied by WVU geologist Dr. Steve Kite due to its ability to hold year-round ice. Some 65 feet inside the passage, a piece of graffiti ironically reads “APPRECIATE NATURE,” defacing the very landscape the message is aiming to highlight.
While CRSF receives funding and assistance to combat graffiti from the WVDNR, it also benefits from the volunteer organization the Coopers Rock Foundation (CRF). Founded in 1987, CRF was formed to oppose a proposed tram that would have spanned the Cheat Canyon from the overlook to Snake Hill. Nowadays, the CRF works with state agencies to advocate for the forest by providing services and education for the park and its visitors.
Adam Polinski, a founding member of the CRF, describes the foundation as a “voice for things that agencies don’t look after.” Along with mitigating graffiti, its efforts include coordination of trailwork and annual events like WinterFest. Polinski previously served as president of the organization for six years and is an avid adventurer who can often be found among the boulders strewn throughout the forest.
Polinski’s graffiti strategy is simple: find it before it becomes a bigger problem. “If you can get in fast, you can take care of it faster, get little bits when they pop up so they don’t become bigger,” he said.
Although motives for generating graffiti are unclear, its presence throughout the forest shows the desire to leave one’s mark is widespread. According to Atkins, some do it simply to say they “were there.” Both Polinski and Atkins believe the biggest reason is directly because someone else already did it—graffiti begets graffiti.
While most associate graffiti with spray painting, carvings are often used to vandalize the forest. Carvings are permanent and can be detrimental to the health of trees and fauna. “Any time you take the bark off a tree, it impacts the flow of water up to the branches and into the leaves,” said Atkins. “It can foster an environment where bacteria gets in and compromises the tree.”
Polinski wonders what would happen if the public never saw the graffiti in the first place. “You have to wonder if the potential to take part in [vandalism] is even there,” he said.
Efforts to clean up graffiti, however, are not undertaken in vain. The CRF reports sightings and carries out cleanups throughout the year, picking up litter and washing off what they can. When it comes to removing graffiti, CRF has a process it uses to identify and clean sites, though it can be daunting and doesn’t always accomplish complete removals.
Graffiti sites are inventoried, supplies like brushes and a biodegradable product called TAGAWAY are gathered, and a volunteer cleanup is organized by Polinski. “Usually with TAGAWAY, you have to apply it, wait a while, and scrub, then reapply it, wait a while, and scrub again,” he said.
Some visitors, however, don’t see the graffiti as an issue. John Atkinson and Joseph White, lifelong visitors to the forest, said much of the graffiti they have seen is not new. “That stuff is old,” said White. “A few more years and you won’t even know it is there.”
This public perception does not stop graffiti removal efforts for Atkins, who hopes to curb some of the illegal activity with public awareness campaigns focusing on public interest in the forest. However, Atkins realizes the results can go unseen. “With our efforts, I feel like they do work, but it’s not measurable,” said Atkins.
Though this work doesn’t solve the issue of graffiti, the forest’s passionate caretakers continue the uphill battle. The next steps for CRF and the forest involve increased public awareness with a focus on accountability. With the sporadic nature of graffiti, the future looks as foggy as the forest on a cool summer morning. But without the attempts of the CRF and the forest managers like Atkins, the effects of the graffiti would likely be much worse.
John Henry Thomas is a junior studying journalism at West Virginia University. Hailing from Pittsburgh, he found his interest in backpacking and the outdoors while becoming an Eagle Scout.