Should altering a natural formation be a crime?

Something unpleasant and highly unpopular took place along the Oregon coast recently and it has quite a few people – including law enforcement officials -up in arms. An ancient sandstone formation commonly known as the “Duckbill” has stood there for millions of years and its unusual shape makes it a tourist attraction and popular spot for photographers. Like many natural wonders in some of our country’s national parks it stands precariously on a stem because wind and surf have eroded the base of the stone away. Actually I should be using the past tense to describe all of these details because now it’s collapsed into a pile of rubble. (Washington Post)

At first, people thought the famous “Duckbill” rock formation at Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area had died a natural death. It’s made up of delicate sandstone, after all, and the popular selfie spot along the Oregon coastline is under constant attack from Mother Nature.

But someone was filming when the rock lost its battle with gravity in late August. The video does not lie: Duckbill’s demise was intentional…

“All eight of them got it to wobble; then five of them backed off and the other three just kept going, kept going, kept pushing,” said David Kalas, who recorded video of the unidentified vandals’ assault on the rock and sent it to several TV stations, including ABC affiliate KATU.

So it didn’t “just collapse.” It was pushed over by a group of people and the act was caught on film. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department said it would “work with Oregon State Police to review the incident immediately” and then figure out how to respond. It could be a relatively minor charge with a fine of less than $500 but others are mentioning felony charges.

This isn’t the first one of these stories we’ve seen. You may recall back in 2014 when a couple of Boy Scout leaders toppled a similarly eroded boulder in Goblin Valley State Park in Utah. The response was similar to what’s expected in Oregon. (CNN)

It just took a little push to topple the delicately perched boulder — millions of years in the making — in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park. Then the man who did it laughed, high-fived his son, and flexed his muscles while being cheered on by a fellow Boy Scout leader.

He is not likely celebrating now, nor is his friend who videotaped then publicized the episode, after both were charged Friday with third-degree felonies. Glenn Taylor, who pushed over the rock, and the cameraman, David Hall, face charges of criminal mischief and are accused of intentionally damaging, defacing and destroying property, according to the charging document.

I almost hate writing about stories like these because I invariably come off as the bad guy. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the natural wonders of the world and our country’s national parks and other preserves. I absolutely do. I’m one of Mother Nature’s biggest fans, believe me. But as we consider what should become of the nasty group of vandals who tipped over the Duckbill – assuming we catch them – I have one nagging question which really needs to be addressed: What crime was committed here and who suffered the damages?

Oh sure, I can think of some sweeping, grand testimonials about how it’s a crime against human sensibility and we all “suffered the loss” because we can’t go look at the nifty rock formation anymore. But we need to be a bit more specific in a court of law. Who “owned” that rock formation in terms of maintaining it? Was anyone maintaining it? When someone vandalizes a building or a piece of machinery (and I’m looking at you, Jill Stein) it’s easy to define the damages and write up a charge. Somebody built or purchased the structure or equipment, they are the owners of it and you can clearly show how the damage inflicted has degraded it and decreased its value or how the owner incurred costs to repair or replace it. Who built that piece of sandstone in Oregon? Who weathered away the base to the point where it could be tipped over so easily? Was God negligent in not keeping up with repairs over the past several million years?

The point is, left to its own devices the rock was going to fall eventually anyway. I’m annoyed at the kids who pushed it over and I feel like it was a really crappy thing to do. But was it a criminal act? I’m just not seeing it.