Julie Anne Overton called them “kindness rocks” and stick structures and said the people who create them may have the best of intentions.
But Overton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, wants the community to know that such artistic expressions done on national forest land are not allowed. For the second time in recent years, people have been building stick structures and painting rocks along trails in the woods, and Forest Service officials issued a statement earlier this week emphasizing such creations are illegal — and potentially dangerous.
Overton said rangers were alerted to a stick structure that looked like a tent along the Alamo Vista Trail east of Tesuque earlier this month. The building was dismantled, but Overton said a similar structure was found in the Cuba Ranger District on the west side of the national forest.
In 2017, rangers received reports of several stick structures around the Aspen Vista picnic area off of Tesuque Peak Road, with some two stories high and 20 feet or more in diameter.
“Given the safety and fire hazards associated with these structures, none of them are built to safety specifications,” Overton said. “We’re worried about them falling and injuring people. Plus, we have an extremely unusual and high fire danger right now. In such dry conditions, they are basically kindling.”
Hikers and rangers also have discovered “kindness rocks” — painted stones adorned with words of encouragement, plus artistic displays of painted rocks. In one case, someone hung rocks of a variety of colors on a tree. Such acts are in violation of federal law and punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 per person, a jail sentence of up to six months or both, according to a Santa Fe National Forest Service news release.
“People are very well-intentioned and they may decide to paint something inspiring on a rock to lift someone’s spirit,” Overton said. “What they don’t realize is, No. 1, it’s considered defacing government property; and two, it has an environmental impact because they might not use the appropriate kind of paint, and it breaks down into the soil and watersheds.”
Overton said it’s possible people constructing these pieces simply are not aware it’s prohibited because Santa Fe National Forest has seen a higher amount of traffic than usual, attributed in large part to the coronavirus pandemic. With other businesses and attractions closed, people are opting to visit parks and trails available to the public.
“Some of our staff that has been out over the summer season, they were surprised by the number of people who said it was their very first time [at the national forest],” Overton said.
One of the side effects to a higher volume of hikers has been a greater amount of trash found along trails and at camping sites. Overton said staff members and rangers often remind visitors how important it is for them to clean up when they leave.
“We’ve had to tell them, ‘Take your garbage with you,’ ” Overton said. “It is a hazard to the wildlife and it is unsightly.”