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At its best, school spirit fosters healthy pride and sportsmanship. But the practice of scarring hills and mountains with block letters is one of its more inappropriate manifestations.

The letters, which adorn 41 hillsides in Utah, deface the natural beauty of the state's landscape and may convey to some a subtle and official sanctioning of disrespect for the environment.They also discriminate. With the number of high schools proliferating along the Wasatch Front, nearby hills don't have room for all the letters, nor is anyone certain what the grouping might inadvertently spell.

Perhaps the most compelling concern about block letters on hillsides involves legal liabilities. Schools that allow these letters may be vulnerable to suits if someone falls or is injured while repainting or vandalizing the letters. Athletic rivalries, particularly on the university level, often lead to vandalism, making the letters little more than attractive nuisances.

Traditions are difficult to change. To many people, the block letters over the University of Utah and Brigham Young University convey more than just school spirit. They invoke common memories of whitewashing excursions and other college activities that in some cases connect several generations.

Removing these letters may not be practical or advisable, but certainly the state's academic officials should discourage the placement of any more block letters on hillsides.

Some school districts, such as Weber, Davis and Jordan, already discourage the tradition. They should be commended. So should Utah State University, which decided in the 1950s to forgo putting an "A" on the mountains above Logan.

Unfortunately, public opinion is squarely on the side of block letters. In a recently published Deseret News/KSL poll, 70 percent of respondents said they are at least somewhat in favor of the practice.

But school administrators should value the natural beauty of Utah's mountains more than public opinion. School spirit will not suffer if no more block letters appear.