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April 15, 2010

DNR using innovative technique to deal with graffiti at Forty Acre Rock

Visitors to Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve/Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster County may notice certain parts of some of the large rocks were recently blackened with soot. While most other such small fires on "The Rock" have been illegally set, these specific fires were aimed at dealing with the persistent problem of graffiti.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and S.C. Forestry Commission re-introducedBurn at 40 Acre Rock prescribed fire to the preserve over the last few months, including some areas adjacent to the preserve's signature rock outcrops, but those fires involve burning in-place leaves, pine needles and other organic matter, whereas these "cosmetic fires" involve piling fuels around targeted areas to obliterate graffiti.

Heritage Preserve Manager Johnny Stowe says he got the idea of using fire to cover the graffiti from a "Living on Earth" segment on National Public Radio last fall. "They were doing a piece on protecting cultural sites in caves on national park lands in the Southwest," Stowe said. "These caves contained petroglyphs or pictographs and they were being damaged by spray-painted graffiti; that caught my attention because of the ongoing problem we have with spray-painting abuse of rock outcrops at Forty Acre Rock. The National Park Service folks called it resinous coniferous heartwood, or some such term, as best I recall, but of course we call such kindling 'fat lighter.' The park managers also liked using this method because it provided a 'refinish' to the ancient soot deposited there by the folks who used these sites long ago. While we would not otherwise like to see most areas of "The Rock" intensively blackened, it looks better than the graffiti, some of which has been obscene and vulgar. In addition to covering up the graffiti, the soot also helps prevent future painting by providing a loose and erodible substrate that spray paint in the future will not adhere to as well."

DNR is implementing this technique slowly and cautiously, and in areas that are less ecologically sensitive, at first. Fire has the potential to directly damage certain rare plants, of course, plus it will likely cause a spike in pH, because of the alkaline nature of ash, which has a pH of about 11, seven being neutral. Stowe said he has noticed that the heat from the fires causes flaking of the rock, and so
DNR is trying to keep the temperatures relatively cool.

In the past the DNR has sandblasted the graffiti or painted over it with non-toxic paint, but these techniques tend to be detrimental to the rock and/or unsightly. Paint of course, adds yet another unnatural material to that of the graffiti itself.

"It is a shame that a few people feel the need to express themselves in such a childish and disgusting manner on this famous landmark, and impair others folks' enjoyment of this very popular recreational area," Stowe said.

Other than prescribed fires lit by the DNR or S.C. Forestry Commission for management purposes, or by special permit, fires are prohibited on the preserve. Unfortunately, people still build fires in the vernal pools where the preserve's rarest plants grow, and salamander and frogs lay their eggs. Other abuse includes driving ATVs, motorcycles, and bicycles onto the rocks and even through the pools.
DNR is also cutting and removing the loblolly pines that have invaded some of the depression areas on "The Rock." Eastern red cedar belongs in these pockets but loblolly does not, according to Dr. Jim Matthews, professor emeritus of biology at UNC-Charlotte, who has been studying the preserve's ecology for more than 30 years, and is advising Stowe on management issues. "The loblolly needs to be removed," Matthews said.

Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve/Wildlife Management Area encompasses 2,267 acres, most of which (1,588 acres), is also a Wildlife Management Area.

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