The Moab petroglyph scandal and the problem of rock climbing on stolen land


We cannot put all the sins of modern tourism at the feet of industry alone; individual responsibility clearly plays a role. Gilbert’s mistake, if we are to believe his claim that he mistook the petroglyphs for graffiti, was defined by his ignorance. It’s like the story of the nine-year-old girl who, in June 2019, was tossed into the air by an adult bison in Yellowstone National Park while her parents stood to the side. Some people know that they and their children have to get away from a half-ton animal; many do not. Some people know better than to punch a low grade climbing route in a wall without taking a moment to observe their surroundings; many do not.

Taking the most optimistic views, one could conclude that these cases of human error are ultimately solvable: with the right mix of public education and stronger data on park use and forest admissions, American tourism and recreation can be reformed. But I’m not convinced it’s that simple.

In January, The New Yorker introduced David Lesh, a Colorado skier, businessman and provocateur who in 2019 became infamous for riding a snowmobile in a federally protected wildlife preserve. Lesh, sensing the opportunity to capitalize on this infamy, played the character portrayed by the press and environmental circles. A few months after crossing the Rockies, he posted a photo on social media showing him shitting at another federally protected wildlife preserve, this time a high mountain lake near Aspen. His message was clear and simple: Parks and these lands are not so much things to cherish, care for, and consider on an equal basis, but rather a backdrop to amass weight and clicks.

Of course, one can distinguish between the ignorance and the blatant stupidity of Instagram assholes like Lesh. But both forms of interaction ultimately lead to the same destruction of natural habitats and works of art that have long been – and still are, in many cases – managed by indigenous communities. These individuals, products of a culture of colonization, conceptualize their relationship to nature as a one-way street: nature provides – whether it is a wall to climb, a stage to shoot, or money to earn – and humans take , without ever having to think about giving anything back. The needs of both the land itself and the other people on it are obliterated by a sort of individualistic presumption. More often than not, they don’t even fit into the picture.