LEVAN, Juab County — When you commit a crime, it's not usually a good idea to put your signature on your work. But that's what happened in an incident that has triggered an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service.
In midsummer, illegal graffiti — a lot of it — turned up on a cliff face in Chicken Creek Canyon, a few miles east of Levan. Some of the graffiti is written right on top of ancient Indian rock art. Yet the lawbreakers left dozens of clues to their own identities and that of the university they attend.
Rex Daley, who's been working on a road improvement project in Chicken Creek Canyon, saw the fresh graffiti a few days ago.
"I was mad as heck," Daley said.
The graffiti is alongside and in some cases superimposed on Indian paintings that pepper a cliff face.
"There's one right here," Daley said, pointing at a vague, reddish spot on the rock believed to have been painted at least 700 years ago by Fremont Indians.
"There's another one here," he said. "There's about three or four right here, on this rock where they've autographed."
The modern-day autographs are salted all across the cliff face, possibly written with felt-tipped pens. Many are dated, suggesting they were written on the rock in July.
Many first names are visible: Alex, Emmanuel, Murvin, Vance, and some have last names as well.
A number of the inscriptions include the initials OSU or the full name, Ohio State University. Students from Ohio State attend a geology field camp in Utah each summer.
Daley said he believes the students should be enrolled in the county jail.
"Maybe it would scare them a little bit, spending a day or two in jail," he said.
The U.S. Forest Service is investigating the apparent violations of the law that protects ancient paintings.
"Defacing them is not only bad behavior, but it's illegal," said Charmaine Thompson, heritage program leader for the Manti-La Sal National Forest.
Thompson admits the rock art is hard to see and interpret, but it's well-documented.
"So here we have a human figure," she said, pointing to a reddish blob with indistinct outlines. "Two arms, the body, little legs coming out here, and tucked up under the rock is their head."
The nearby graffiti is so brazen and contains so much identifying information that it suggests the perpetrators might not have known that what they were doing was illegal.
"Yeah, that might be," Daley said. "But being geologists, I think they should have known it was a crime."
Even in cases where no rock art is involved, it's against the law to deface public land. In this case, potential penalties could be severe, up to five years in jail with the potential for $100,000 fines.
But Thompson prefers a softer approach. The cliff was abused often in the past. She hopes to turn the Ohio State incident into a positive experience that will lead to better understanding of rock art by students and the general public.
"We're presented with an opportunity," Thompson said, "to work with the university to make this right and to help their students understand what kind of behavior we hope they will show when they come to Utah to visit."
Thompson has one other goal in mind if the investigation leads to enforcement action against Ohio State University.
"We want them to help us clean this up," she said.
After OSU officials were alerted to the investigation, they issued a written statement.
"The Ohio State University deeply regrets any damage our students may have caused during a summer geology field experience in Utah," the statement said. "We are investigating and will take appropriate action."
Professor Terry Wilson of the OSU School of Earth Sciences wrote that "faculty and staff never observed rock art; and if they had been cognizant of it, would have been vigilant."
Wilson pledged a cleanup effort and said students will be instructed "that it is not acceptable to write on rock outcrops or deface a natural resource in any way."