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For more than 100 years, people have carved words and symbols into the lichen. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Not lichen it

ASHLAND — Venture up the windy dirt road to the top of Mount Ashland and you'll discover two plants found nowhere else in the world — right next to the scratched image "TW♥DN."

You'll also see plenty of Ashland High School acronyms scraped into ancient lichen growing on the peak's granite boulders. Plus several crosses. A pentagram. The grill logo for a Honda. Lots of cuss words. And close calls, like the well-manicured "Cluck U."

"I got to hand it to whoever did that one," Forest Service botanist Clint Emerson says. "They did a good job."

For more than 100 years, people venturing atop the Siskiyou Mountains' tallest peak have left their mark by carving symbols and initials into the rock-clinging lichen that's very slowly turning granite into dirt for future millennia.

Dozens upon dozens of what amounts to living graffiti ring the rocks here to remain for decades or longer before the scraped-away images can naturally fill back in with lichen. 

"You come up here and it's so beautiful, then you see all this graffiti," Emerson says. "It's tough to stomach."

It's probably not illegal, and some of it likely is historic. But it is ugly, forestry officials say, and it's kind of rude, even if you don't like lichen.

So stop it, they warn.

"People need to stop doing this and be aware at the longevity of what they're doing," says Chamise Kramer from the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which includes the peak. 

"People don't think of lichen as being plants and growing," Kramer says. "It's like carving into a tree — they're affecting a natural process whether they realize it or not."

Emerson says up to five subspecies of so-called "rock-loving lichen" have been identified on the mountain's granite boulders, combinations of algae and fungi that symbiotically create the organisms that slowly turn rocks into soils.

"They're doing an ecosystem service," Emerson says. "And it stays for a long time. Almost forever, in our terms."

Some lichen atop Mount Ashland likely is well over 100 years old, and their adoption as mediums for graffiti artists has been going on for decades. The Forest Service even has historical photos of people standing proudly next to their scratched-in initials dating back to the mid-1920s.

That makes some of the images possibly protected as antiquities, but archaeologists can't tell a 100-year-old graffiti from the run-of-the-mill, 20-year-old eyesore.

"It's kind of a paradox," Emerson says. "Some of it is, but we don't know which ones."

During a recent climate-change conference in Ashland, Jeanine Moy and others ventured to the top of the mountain to look at Mount Ashland lupine and discuss how climate change could impact this plant found nowhere else in the world.

They found plenty of lupine but were aghast at the amount of graffiti, says Moy, an amateur botanist and outreach coordinator for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

"We were all kind of amazed at the extent of the graffiti there," Moy says.

She is also miffed that it continues like some kind of rite of passage. Vandalism that spans generations is still vandalism, she says. 

"In my eyes, it's just as inexcusable many years ago as it is now," Moy says. "It's not something to celebrate."

Emerson says the Forest Service has considered cleaning up the mess, possibly even growing lichen in labs and physically filling in the holes, but this lichen grows too slowly.

So the Forest Service and others plan to do a little public education about lichen graffiti, including visits to Ashland High and perhaps other Rogue Valley schools this year to break this chain of lichen abuse. 

"So the take-home message is, 'Please stop,' " Emerson says. "I don't know how much else we can do."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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