One summer night at 1:20 a.m., a telephone call roused Senior Conservation Agent Tom Skinner from a sound sleep. The caller reported that a sign was burning at a campground at Thomas Hill Reservoir. Within minutes, Skinner was dressed and headed for the popular fishing and hunting area northwest of Moberly.
Because of a mix-up in directions, Skinner first went to the north side where he discovered a noisy group of people having a wild party. He called for backup from the Macon and Randolph counties' sheriff departments. Then, he drove to the primitive campground on the south side where he discovered another group burning the sign.
By 3 a.m., Skinner and the other law enforcement officers had arrested 28 people on a variety of charges, including possession of alcohol and marijuana, carrying a concealed weapon, property damage and trespassing after hours.
Skinner is more than willing to fight vandalism on the conservation areas owned by the Missouri Department of Conservation. He and Senior Conservation Agent Jeff Brown have arrested more than 200 people at Thomas Hill Conservation Area in the last three years for vandalism and improper use of the area. Skinner would rather see people using the area as it was intended, an overnight camp for anglers and hunters who want to get an early start fishing for bass, crappie and catfish on the 4,900-acre lake or hunting for deer and turkey on the 11,000-acre conservation area.
"A camper once told us he didn't want to take his grandkids camping here because of all the partying, and we took him seriously," Skinner said.
For that reason, Skinner, Brown and other Department employees regularly patrol the area and respond quickly to complaints. Changes in regulations, such as limiting the number of people in a campsite, have given law enforcement officers an opportunity to stop wild parties and the vandalism that goes along with them before they start.
Thomas Hill is only one of the Conservation Department's areas where vandalism occurs. This particular incident resulted in having to replace a $128 sign, not to mention the work hours required for an agent and the other officers to deal with the lawbreakers and the repairs. Other incidents are much costlier.
Take privies, for example. The Conservation Department would like to put these restrooms on many areas and boat access facilities. Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates them. At Lone Jack Lake Conservation Area, east of Kansas City, the Department installed privies two different times. Each time, vandals destroyed the buildings. At $14,500 apiece, they were too expensive to rebuild a third time.
"Privies are put in for more than convenience," said Dave Lewis, construction chief for the Department. "They also prevent waste from contaminating the resources of the area, which is especially important at wetlands and river accesses that have heavy use."
Lewis says he is amazed at the efforts vandals go through to destroy these concrete buildings. At Lake Girardeau Conservation Area, west of Jackson, vandals cut a hole in the roof with a chainsaw, and then ripped out all of the plumbing.
"If they had used the same amount of effort in a constructive manner, they could have built two more privies," Lewis said. "It's frustrating. We could take those dollars and develop more access to our areas rather than fixing things we've already developed."
Areas all over the state suffer from many different kinds of vandalism. At the James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area east of Lee's Summit, the Conservation Department rents boats for $5 a day as a service for anglers who don't have their own boats. So people don't have to wait until the office opens at 8 a.m. to start fishing, the boats are rented on the honor system by slipping money into a slot on a pipe safe. One night, a group of thieves figured out how to use a straw to ease the money back out of the hole.
With a tip from the Independence Police Department, Conservation Agent Tammy Cornine charged three teens with the theft. One was convicted and paid $570 in restitution. The resourceful staff at the Reed area has redesigned the safes so the money can't be removed without a key.
Vandals also cause about $2,000 damage a year at the Reed Area by destroying oars and life jackets and by dropping anchors from the boats into the lake. As a result, agents frequently patrol the area to keep vandals from ruining the outdoor experience for others.
Fire towers also are a favorite target for vandals. Once a primary defense tool against Ozark wildfires, only a few are still needed today. With modern equipment, such as planes and satellite photos, foresters spend less time in towers. One tower that is still used during fire season is the Mountain View Fire Tower in Howell County. This tower is easy to reach by fire spotters and vandals alike. Bill Klatt, the Department's Regional Forestry Supervisor, said Department employees in the area spend a lot of time removing graffiti with sandpaper and paint.
Once, a vandal broke into the cab and broke every pane of glass - all 72 of them. Two weeks later, vandals broke in again and broke 36 new panes.
"Materials, mileage and labor added up to about $600 to repair the glass," Klatt said. "These are actual costs of repair and do not take into account the three days of labor that our employees otherwise would have been spent managing our resources and public use areas."
The ground below many of the fire towers sparkles like diamonds in the sunlight from all the bottles that have been dropped. The shattered glass makes walking dangerous for visitors, and it's especially hazardous to children. It's also difficult to remove.
"When we catch the vandals, we make them clean it up," Klatt said. "But once again, when agents spend time trying to catch vandals, it takes them away from other important duties, such as helping landowners improve their land for wildlife and catching wildlife violators.
Sometimes vandalism involves drugs, and it can be more dangerous to the environment than broken glass. At the Patrick Bridge Access on the North Fork River in Ozark County, a trash barrel was found emitting fumes that smelled like battery acid and smoke caused by a chemical reaction. Tim Stanton, the Department's Forestry District Supervisor, said foresters and agents in the area have been finding caustic material, such as muriatic acid and hydrochloric acid, as well as cleaning solvents, that are used to make methamphetamine. Other items that indicate illegal drugs are being manufactured on public land include rubber gloves, calibrated glass tubes, plastic piping and coffee filters.
"Many people are using these remote areas to make these drugs," Stanton said. "It is not only dangerous to people, but it harms the resource, especially if it is done next to a stream."
Firing ranges also take a hit from vandals.
"At Sugar Creek Range, vandals have hauled in televisions and other junk, then shot them up," said Matt Wolken, Protection Regional Supervisor. "Then, Department staff have to clean and haul off all the debris. At Rocky Fork Lake Conservation Area, the range was closed for four months in 1999 because vandals used unconventional targets. Among other things, they destroyed a privy. After many long hours of cleanup and repairs, the range was reopened, but without toilet facilities.
"People shoot the wooden target posts instead of the targets," added Dave Lewis. "We can't use metal because the bullets might ricochet. Some people leave their casings, which can cause other users to slip, trip and fall. They also leave behind targets and trash."
The agents and other Department employees check on the areas regularly, but they also get help from concerned citizens.
"All over the state, local folks are unofficially adopting our areas," Lewis said. "They make a presence, and as a result, we have much less vandalism at those areas."
As an example, Lewis mentioned a man he's seen at the Scrivner Road Range who picks up trash and also encourages other users to do the same.
"I went out one week to shoot, and it was very clean, and I know our maintenance crew hadn't been there for a few days," Lewis said.
It's hard to say exactly how much money is wasted on vandalism each year, but Lewis estimates the Department spends about $200,000 a year for cleanup and repairs. That is the same amount the Department collects from the sale of 18,182 resident fishing permits or 22,222 small game hunting permits. That's a considerable amount of money that could be used to improve your enjoyment of Missouri's outdoors.
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