Parts of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge are beginning to resemble war zones, with bullet-ridden signs, restrooms and informational kiosks standing out as ugly outposts in an otherwise pristine wilderness environment.
As one of five full-time refuge enforcement officers, Jim Neely sees the damage every day. After a recent round of shootings he said he's fed up with people's wanton disregard for safety, the law and the natural environment.
"I just can't relate to it," Neely said during a recent drive through the refuge. "It's just deliberate destruction."
Neely said his anger with the vandals came to a head recently when he discovered that a $1 million project to enhance trail heads and public facilities along Swanson River Road had begun to fall prey to the vandals. Neely said there's no way to put a price tag on the damage done so far, but estimated it's easily in the tens of thousands of dollars.
"They're hurting everyone," he said. "The funds we use are people's tax dollars."
Neely has been spending much of his time lately patrolling the refuge and picking up evidence from the most recent vandalism. The vast majority, he said, is done by people who shoot up signs and other refuge property. Because damage can be done extremely quickly, Neely said it takes very little time for a couple people with rifles, handguns or shotguns to do a tremendous amount of damage.
Catching the culprits isn't easy. Because the shooters are usually gone long before the damage is discovered, Neely normally can only collect spent shell casings and take pictures of footprints. But he said the evidence he's gathered may soon pay off, as he's developed a number of promising leads.
If someone is eventually caught, Neely said the punishment will likely be severe. If the damage done to refuge property exceeds $1,000 - which can easily happen with just a few shots to a couple signs or kiosks - he said the crime is classified as a federal felony that's punishable by more than one year in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. And because of the extent of the damage, Neely said it's unlikely vandals will be getting a break when they get their day in court.
"Undoubtedly we're going to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law," he said.
During a tour of the Swanson River Road area, Neely pointed out a number of trouble spots. Almost every sign along the road is riddled with bullet holes. A sign kiosk at Rainbow Lake is covered with graffiti, much of which seems to point to the culprit's likely hometown.
"Kenai Rox," reads one of the only lines that doesn't contain profanity, signed by someone going by the name of "H-Dez."
Nearby, the Rainbow Lake restroom facilities have been desecrated by feces thrown against the walls.
"I just can't understand the mentality," Neely said.
Further into the refuge at the Paddle Lake Trail, Neely pointed to a number of areas recently hit by vandals. A sign kiosk has been partially destroyed by shotgun blasts. Informational signs are pocked with bullet holes. The restroom displays a large scar where someone apparently used it for target practice.
"They just kind of worked their way around, shooting everything," he said.
In addition to the cost and aesthetic issues, Neely pointed out that the stray bullets vandals are letting fly can be a safety issue.
"I doubt they check downrange to see if anyone is on the trail behind," he said.
In addition to collecting evidence, Neely said refuge officers likely will begin to use some new surveillance techniques in an effort to catch one or more of the culprits in the act.
"It might take sitting in the bushes for 24 hours, but none of us is averse to that," he said.
The most frustrating thing for refuge staff is that the vast majority of people who access the 2-million acre refuge are law-abiding citizens who use the area as a world-class canoeing, hiking, fishing and hunting destination.
"It's just those few that end up costing us a lot," Neely said.
Bill Kent, a supervisory park ranger on the refuge, said an estimated 540,000 people used the refuge last year. That high level of use, he said, makes the vandalism particularly upsetting.
"It's a well-used place," Kent said. "We're people's backyard."