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Vandals Spray Red Ink Parks Lose Money; Users Lose Facilities In Wave Of Destruction

Bulletin boards at the Canfield Mountain bike trails near Coeur d’Alene were covered with the kind of plastic used to protect fighter pilots. But that wasn’t enough to save them.

Vandals used cable to yank the concrete-set posts, then burned the signs. They did it in 1995. And again this year.

Cost to the public: $2,400.

“Fifteen percent of our operating budget is eaten up by vandalism,” says Jack Dorrell, of the Fernan Ranger District. “You learn to live with it.”

His frustration and resignation are echoed by public property managers throughout the Inland Northwest.

Shattered toilets in Spokane parks, bashed-up backhoes in the Colville backwoods, run-over traffic signs on the Rathdrum Prairie. … Increasing amounts of money are spent to repair damage from crimes that most people can’t comprehend.

“In the past five years, it’s gotten more aggressive,” said Taylor Bressler, division manager with Spokane City parks. “Instead of replacing irrigation heads, we’re replacing whole bathrooms.”

Repairing a vandalized restroom can cost up to $3,000, he said.

“We have to put up bombproof fixtures. If you put in Ernst hardware type toilets, they don’t last the afternoon.”

Money spent to repair such damage isn’t available for other purposes, officials said.

“Do you blade the road, or cut brush, or do you replace the sign?” asked Mary Northrup of the Panhandle National Forests. “There’s only so much money, and that’s it.”

People lose more than money to vandals.

Sometimes they lose a place to relieve themselves. In Idaho, vandalism forced wintertime closure of a highway rest area south of Sandpoint, the removal of a toilet at Shepherd Lake, and the closing of an entire picnic area at Medicine Lake.

At Canfield Mountain, trail users lost maps and safety information because the Forest Service decided it could not afford to replace those trashed bulletin boards a third time.

Vandals shoot at power lines, risking electrocution and disruption of emergency power supplies. They destroy lake navigation lights and stop signs.

“Someone could get killed because of their foolishness,” said Herb Heisel, manager of the Post Falls Highway District.

It costs $100 in materials to replace a sign, he said. That needs to be done nearly every week on the district’s 209 miles of road.

And those broken navigation lights? Kootenai County spends $500 at least twice a year to replace lenses after someone throws rocks at them on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

There’s general agreement that vandalism in this region isn’t as bad as that experienced in bigger West Side communities.

For example, the Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers spend $500,000 a year to replace porcelain insulators that are shot on Northwest power lines. Only a small part of that is spent in Eastern Washington and North Idaho - $12,400 so far in 1996.

Because guns are a common means of destruction, anti-vandalism messages are being included in hunter safety classes.

Simple prevention tactics can help, too.

The Post Falls Recreation Department has learned to plant only large trees along the Centennial Trail. Small ones are too easily snapped off.

Brian Martin, director of maintenance for Coeur d’Alene schools, said “it’s amazing” what motion-activated lights will do to stop kids from doing mischief in the dark.

The most successful anti-vandalism strategy, Bressler said, is an active interest by neighbors. They must pitch in to keep a park clean and, if necessary, pester police to keep it safe.

That worked with gratifying results, he said, at Underhill Park in east-central Spokane.

It appears to have worked, as well, on the Coeur d’Alene Lake Parkway at the east end of the Centennial Trail.

Soon after the lakeshore recreation area opened last year, graffiti showed up on walls, fires were built in the restrooms, signs were torn down.

The Idaho Parks and Recreation Department spent $2,500 on materials to fix the damage.

Vandalism dropped dramatically this year, said Ranger Jim Richards. He credited sheriff’s patrols and vigilant neighbors.

Places where no one’s watching are most vulnerable. That includes remote mountainsides where monitoring stations gather snow-pack information.

“We’ve tried different signs, like one saying, ‘This is property of the U.S. Government, destroy it and you will be convicted.’ That doesn’t work,” said Stan Fox of the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

“So we tried a softer approach, telling them the value (of the equipment) to all water users. I don’t think that does much good, either.”

So Fox tallies the costs - $2,000 per incident, an average of 15 times a year - and contemplates closing down valuable but chronically vandalized sites.

Last weekend, someone cut the lock on a gravel pit gate in the Colville National Forest. They broke windows in a government-leased backhoe and a truck parked there, sprayed a fire extinguisher in the truck’s cab.

Last year, vandals did $23,000 worth of damage to signs, gates and radio equipment in the Colville Forest.

It’s rare for vandals to be caught.

Capt. Ben Wolfinger got lucky once. The Kootenai County sheriff’s officer caught kids driving in circles, tearing up the grass at a Dalton Gardens park.

“I worked out a deal with the city, prosecutor’s office and the parents, and the two young men did all the yard work at the park for the summer,” he recalled. “We didn’t have any more problems after that.”

Gary Herrin, manager of Riverside State Park, likes to use that approach with destructive youths, too.

“After about four hours of breaking their back, bending over and picking up litter,” he said, “they have a whole different perspective.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 Color)