November 2004

Bullet holes speckle road signs

By David Grant Long

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign,
Shot full of bullet holes, blowin' my mind. . .

Driving around very southwestern Colorado, newcomers might conclude they’d made a wrong turn and somehow ended up in a war zone.

Evidence of unfriendly fire can be seen on numerous traffic-control signs along well-travelled highways as well as remote gravel roads. The worst victims have been turned into illegible, Swiss-cheese-like sheets of twisted metal, drilled from both sides as though during a clash between hostile forces.

But, no, actually it’s only boys having fun — boys of all ages, apparently.

“I tell my wife, ‘I put up a few more targets today’,” joked U.S. Forest Service Ranger Lloyd McNeil, who as part of his job replaces signs when they become too defaced to serve their purpose.

McNeil, who has been patrolling public lands on the San Juan National Forest for many years, condemned the practice as dangerous and costly rather than a harmless prank.

“ It’s just playing games with idiots out there,” he said of his “constant struggle” to keep up with the shooters.

“Every chance I get to talk to young people, I talk about responsibility and how stupid that kind of behavior is,” he said. “You can educate some people, but some out there . . . I just don't know.”

As the use of public lands increases, so does the damage, he said, and signs along more popular routes get the brunt of it.

“There’s more people going to the woods and that multiplies the number of idiots out there,” he said, “but the signs back in the toolies seem to last longer.”

The sign-shooters also have favorite targets depending on the messages, he said. Signs telling people to stay on the roads are more likely to be shot. And “if they’ve got a lot of zeros and Os they like to use them for targets to see if they can get in the dead center of it,” McNeil added.

“I guess we could put up signs and leave all the Os out,” he joked.

Along with random acts of vandalism, McNeil believes the anti-government attitude of people who resent regulation of public lands probably inspires some of the damage.

“It’s like the saying that people cut off their nose to spite their face,” he said. “What satisfaction do they get out of tearing up property that costs taxpayers money to replace? It’s just dumb.

“If they've got a complaint about the government, why don’t they write their congressman or do it through the legislative process — don’t go out there and do $2,000 damage to a restroom or tear up a $1,000 worth of signs in a night.

“But it really is a problem that costs a lot of dollars that’s just absolutely unnecessary.”

Lloyd Everett, a road supervisor for Montezuma County, agrees that the practice, whatever its motive, is costly. He said upwards of $10,000 of his department’s annual budget can go for repairing and replacing “signage,” as it’s collectively called.

“Probably half of that is replacement signs as a result of damage,” he said. “I don’t know that I could attribute all of it to vandalism, but a good percentage of it is.”

And it’s widespread.

“You could drive all of the county roads, and I’m sure that on every road you’d find at least one sign that had a bullet hole in it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a particular area — Cortez versus the Mancos, Dolores, or Pleasant View areas — that have more or less bullet holes in their signs.

“Obviously the more rural the area, the more opportunity to put a hole in a sign without being caught . . . but we’ve replaced signs with bullet holes in them right down by the radio station.”

Theft of signs is also a major problem, he added. “We have as much problem with signs totally disappearing as with damage.”

For instance, when a stop sign is initially placed at an intersection where traffic has increased, it may not last long. “All of a sudden it becomes a target for people who don’t think the stop sign needs to be there.”

Who shoots the signs, why and when remain mysteries. Are the perpetrators kids out having fun? Hunters driving by who take out their frustration on an unmoving target? Groups of sign-shooters who get together and go out to do some target practice along the roads? And when are they shooting — during days, when traffic might be driving by, or at night, when the targets are difficult to see?

Conventional wisdom assigns blame for the rampant destruction to the area’s youth, but Everett is not so sure.

“I would assume there’s no one generation more responsible than another for shooting holes in signs,” Everett said. “I’ve never taken offense enough to a sign to put a bullet in it.”

Everett said he hasn’t noticed any increase of sign shootings during hunting season, when there are more people travelling around with guns, although it might be true on public lands where “there’s more opportunity to take their lackluster season out on a sign.” In fact, “springtime seems to be our worst time,” he said, “Kids are feeling their oats — graduation and prom nights are big nights for sign problems.”

But Penny Wu, a recreation specialist for the Forest Service/BLM in the Dolores area, said she believes it would be unfair to conclude that hunters are part of the problem. Nor does Wu, who also works on the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, think that the strong feelings against declaring the area a monument are behind any of the considerable damage done there, including signs being shot and spray-painted.

“I don’t feel that because it’s become a monument we’re seeing more vandalism,” Wu said. “Quite the contrary. Now that it’s become a monument, we have more people willing to come forward and volunteer with such projects as sign installation, trail projects and picking up garbage. Volunteers also monitor sites in the monument and report any damage such as shootings.”

And she warned vandals that places where there has been significant damage are being monitored with hidden surveillance cameras.

“We’ll probably have people shooting at trees next,” she joked.

Tim Huskey, Dolores County road supervisor, said vandalism of signs as well as theft is “quite a problem” there too, but that sign-shootings are “just something I guess we’ve learned to live with forever — they’re always shot up.”

The county spends around $2,000 a year just to replace vandalized signs, Huskey said, and that doesn't include those with minor damage.

“There’s a lot with a few bullet holes that need to be changed, but I don’t,” he said. “They’re still readable and I guarantee you within a week they’re going to have the same number of bullet holes again.

“It’s just kind of a lost cause — as long as you can read them, I guess I leave them up.”

Even more dangerous is the removal of signs from intersections, he said. “There’s getting to be a lot more of that than there used to be.

“We’ve had people go right off the end of the road and out in the fields” because they weren’t familiar with the jags and sharp turns in the roads. Additionally, each sign costs about $100 to replace.

But Huskey has never actually seen a shooting in progress or heard of anyone being nabbed for such acts.

“I think a lot of it is pistols — they just shoot them as they go by, so it’s going to be hard to catch them, and then every once in a while we’ll get one blown plumb off with a shotgun.”

The young people he believes are behind the thefts probably don’t realize they could be held liable if an accident occurs because they removed a sign, which is stealing government property, a felony.

“I don’t think they realize the consequences of what they’re doing when they’re taking something in fun or destroying it.”

Samuel Frizzel, secretary/treasurer of the Four Corners Rifle and Pistol Club, which promotes responsible gun ownership, said sign-shooting is only a part of the larger problem of vandalism, which has struck his own club’s facilities repeatedly.

The building housing the indoor shooting range has been repainted four times in the last two years to cover up graffiti, he said, and last spring “we had another idiot shoot up our outdoor range — he put one bullet through the target shed and another through the privy.”

Unlike most of the culprits, however, this guy was caught and arrested.

“He was a nut case — his girlfriend was scared to death of him and turned him in,” Frizzel said. “He was (also) shooting up on Summit Ridge toward houses and signs and stuff.”

Frizzel said he would wholeheartedly support stiffer laws against such acts, including taking away perpetrators’ firearms.

“I would be really in favor of classifying it as a gun crime any time you do malicious mischief with a gun,” he said, “and eliminate the right of that individual to own guns (because) it demonstrates that person’s inability to responsibly handle a firearm — someone shooting at a sign has no idea of where that bullet’s going to after it goes through the sign.”

Strangely, for all the prevalence of sign-shooting along public byways, perpetrators are rarely caught or even spotted.

Frizzel said that in the 70 years he’s lived around here, he’s never actually seen anyone shooting a sign, but believes he knows who’s doing it.

“It’s young people motivated by the same impulse that causes them to put bombs in mailboxes, spray-paint buildings and break windows,” he said. “It’s an aberration of the human mind that I do not understand.”

San Juan National Forest law-enforcement officer Aleta Walker, who patrols 600,000 acres of public lands, said she’s never apprehended anyone in the act here, but did catch some sign-shooters in Alaska, where she was previously stationed, and found that mind-altering substances were always involved.

“These were younger people — not necessarily high-school kids,” Walker said. “In all the cases where I actually caught someone, alcohol and/or (other) drugs were always involved.

“Usually they say they’re bored,” she said. “Go figure — I grew up in Nome, Alaska and that’s about as isolated as you can get — and I don’t remember being bored once.”