Popular photo op vandalized

Canyonlands National Park has closed the Island in the Sky “False Kiva” due to impacts of vandalism. The trail leading to it is still open, but the alcove is not. A solution to allowing access in the future may be guided ranger hikes.

The popularly photographed destination—a real kiva, which by definition is a room used by Puebloans for religious rituals and political meetings—was vandalized most recently in July, according to Terry Fisk, chief of resource stewardship and science for the southeast Utah group of national parks.

The NPS has noted that the site has been the victim of graffiti, illegal camping and campfires. Some vandals have moved rocks that form the circular, low structure.

“It is considered, if not sacred, at least very ceremonial to a number of tribes,” Fisk told KSL news.

On July 20, Park Superintendent Kate Cannon made the decision to close the False Kiva alcove. The last vandalism incident involved unknown persons building a fire and putting handprints at the site. Subsequent efforts to clean it up appeared to have made matters worse. Fisk told KSL that the incidents were the “last straw,” but were similar to other damaging incidents. “Whoever did it tried to erase some previous graffiti and, in doing so, kind of caused more damage than the original graffiti. It’s just a bad situation. It wasn’t necessarily that it was more egregious this time than in the past, but it was kind of the last straw,” he added. “We came to the conclusion that we can’t let the situation continue on its own because it’s just spiraling out of control.”

Cannon said that the park needs to put protections in place and change the way the site is managed to reduce incidents of graffiti and damage. “It’s a valuable archeological resource. We want to prevent it from being further damaged by people. We need to add some provisions to help people understand how to behave in the site and near the site. As long as we can come up with a suitable set of management practices, I expect it will be open again in the future,” Cannon said. However, with the busy season upon them, “it’s unlikely that we’ll make very much progress until things quiet down.”

Park rangers have no idea who vandalized the kiva several weeks ago, and it’s unclear if or when it will ever reopen to the public. A sign now blocks the alcove. Tourists can still hike to the area and see the kiva from a distance, but a sign was placed on the trail that tells visitors the alcove is closed.

Iconic photographs of the kiva may have led to its demise. Untold numbers of people have wanted to take the classic photograph. “That is not currently possible” under current management services for the area, said Karen Garthwaite, interim chief of interpretation and visitor services for Arches and Canyonlands national parks. “In order to take that particular shot, that particular angle, that does require entering the site and that’s been a part of what has been causing so much damage all these years,” she told KSL.

Fisk said park officials plan to use National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act guidelines, as well as work with other government agencies and Native American tribes associated with the park, to guide future use of the area.

No alternatives have been decided, but Fisk said one option is to reopen the alcove with a little less access than before, while another could be to close it altogether. He said there’s also a possibility it would only be open for guided tours with a ranger.

A final decision could be made in the next few months, Fisk added. Until then, the kiva will be closed.

Said Fisk, “These sites have tremendous cultural significance to Native American tribes, and when we thoughtlessly or willfully desecrate those sites somehow, that is a direct violation of their cultural integrity. That is, really, an unacceptable action and these are sites that should be treated with respect and with humility and they’re not intended to be a posting place for social media or graffiti or anything else.”