BRADENTON, Fla. (FOX 13) - One of the main rules at De Soto National Memorial Park: Leave it as you found it.
The park's trails mark one of the spots where Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto landed during his 4,000-mile expedition. But something new and unsightly has been catching the eyes of visitors and park staff.
Names, hearts, dates, and obscenities have been carved into the trunks of seagrape and gumbo limbo trees.
"We want to keep it natural out here," said park superintendent Nathan Souder. "Unlike a building when you damage a natural resource, it can’t recover. There’s not a layer of paint we can put over it. It can’t be replaced."
It may feel like a cute idea at the time, but the vandalism is a federal crime. Anyone caught carving into the trees could face a fine of up to $250,000 and a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
But what's worse is the vandalism can kill the protected trees.
"It's kind of against the story we are trying to tell," said Sounder. "The more stress a tree has the less of a lifespan it will have."
Lenette Eveleth and her family can't understand why anyone would take that risk or even think of destroying history and nature.
"That's not what you do at a park. You come and enjoy. You learn the history," said Eveleth. "That's the last thing I would do. You don’t think of doing that. You don’t come for that."
Rangers and the Manatee County Sheriff's Office are stepping up patrols in the area. Anyone who has information about the vandalism is asked to call 941-792-0458.