Utah 'Goblin'-topplers in big trouble. Did government shutdown play a role?

Authorities say three men, including two Boy Scout leaders, could face felony charges after knocking over an ancient Utah desert rock formation and posting a video of the incident online.

Utah State Parks/AP
Rock formations at Goblin Valley State Park. Authorities say three men could face felony charges after purposely knocking over an ancient Utah desert rock formation and posting a video of the incident online.

Prosecutors in Emery County, Utah, are mulling potential felony charges against two Boy Scout leaders and another man who toppled a 170 million year old rock formation known as a “goblin,” at Goblin Valley State Park in Utah last week.

A video of the pillar falling released on Facebook on Friday shocked many Americans, including state rangers and Boy Scout officials, who said the toppling of one of hundreds of rock pillars at the park contravened tradition, rules, and potentially criminal law.

But the incident has also raised questions, exacerbated by recent the government closures of national parks due to vandalism concerns, about how average Americans and state rangers view nature stewardship in different ways.

Park rangers said that visitors should keep their hands off natural formations, especially those under state protection. "This is highly, highly inappropriate," Eugene Swalbert, a state park official, told the Salt Lake Tribune.

But Boy Scout leaders Dave Hall and Glenn Taylor – representing the Utah National Parks Council – explained that the goblin rock moved at the mere push of a hand during a hike with a group of teenage scouts. Dylan Taylor was the third man present.

After discovering the allegedly loose rock, the men said they pow-wowed for 15 minutes, discussing what to do. They ultimately decided that the rock posed a danger to hikers coming up a trail below it, especially since the park was more crowded than usual because of the shutdown of the state’s numerous national parks. They said the cheering and high fiving in the video was a result of the sheer rush of watching a massive stone dislodged and tumble.

The toppling of the goblin happened as the US was in the middle of a debate over whether the National Park Service was justified in closing national parks because the agency didn’t have the manpower to properly patrol natural treasures.

After being attacked by Republicans for what critics were “arbitrary” park closings aimed at reminding conflict-weary Americans about the importance of the federal government, Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis told Congress that Americans don’t always treat their treasures well. He said there are 2,000 acts of vandalisms in national parks every year. In late July, the Lincoln Memorial, which the park service oversees, was vandalized.

In an anonymous response from federal rangers to the Congressional dress-down of Mr. Jarvis on Wednesday, federal employees reported that some gate-jumping Americans vandalized closed national parks during the shutdown, with some leaving notes that said. “This is my park, I pay taxes,” and, “I peed in your parking lot you federal government [expletive].”

During the Congressional hearing, Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah, suggested that closing national parks and monuments needlessly during the shutdown showed that the park service is “not an advocate [for the American people] but an adversary.”

In the goblin-topping video, posted on Facebook, Mr. Taylor can be seen using a boulder to gain leverage before pushing the goblin formation over.

"Some little kid was about ready to walk down here and die and Glenn saved his life by getting the boulder out of the way," Mr. Hall, who was filming, is heard saying. "So it’s all about saving lives here at Goblin Valley."

State officials say anyone involved in the incident may be charged with anything from a misdemeanor to a second-degree felony, depending on what financial value the state puts on the toppled rock. 

The men say they’ve received over 100 death threats since posting the video. While still maintaining they did the right thing to prevent injuries or worse to other hikers, Mr. Hall told the Salt Lake Tribune that he’s since realized that “state parks and national parks are very, very sacred to a lot of people.”

“There is a right way and wrong way to handle a dangerous situation in the park. And it is not to take it into your own hands,” he said. It is to find someone in authority and let them be the one who does it."

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