A Saguaro National Park East volunteer was fired from his job as a mounted trail patrol for contacting the news media about vandals painting graffiti on saguaros and boulders along one of the park's scenic trails earlier this week.
Joe Sharkey, 66, had volunteered at the park for just over a year.
On Sunday, hikers walking down the trail notified him about the word "SOMA" spray-painted on several saguaros and boulders on the Douglas Springs Trail. Sharkey saw the damage for himself and made three calls to the visitor center, two to a park ranger and two to the ranger on duty but received no response. He finally called 911, and a sheriff's deputy came to the trail.
When Sharkey was leaving after his shift around 11 a.m., he said, he notified the ranger on duty about the graffiti. After getting off duty, he sent photos and information to the Arizona Daily Star about the damage.
"I was just sad because these saguaros, some of them, have been around since the days that Geronimo and Wyatt Earp and that era, that's how old they are and how long they've been icons in Tucson," Sharkey said of the damage. "It was just sad to see that."
Sharkey, a freelance reporter, said he was called in for a disciplinary conference Thursday and was asked to admit he was wrong and agree to never approach the media again.
"I said, 'That's crazy. I'm not going to do that. You're going to have to fire me because I'm not going to resign,' " he said.
Saguaro National Park confirmed Sharkey was released from the volunteer program on Friday because he refused to follow proper park procedure.
The procedure calls for contacting a Park Watch number, which would allow the park to send the appropriate information out to the public without hindering any investigation - as it did on Monday after the Star article was published.
"He didn't call the number he was instructed to call even though he had it in his pocket," said Andy L. Fisher, a park spokeswoman. "He would have successfully reached someone."
Fisher noted that Saguaro National Park has more than 500 volunteers, all of whom are able to follow the procedures without any problem.
"We love our volunteers; they are the eyes and ears of Saguaro National Park, and we couldn't do what we do without them," Fisher said. "We hope (Sharkey) continues to be an advocate for Saguaro National Park. It's clear he loves this place, and we appreciate his support."
Sharkey called the whole incident "weird."
"The attitude that they conveyed to me was that they had the right to control what the public saw on Sunday. Even though they hadn't responded to the reports, and I thought that was a very strange attitude for public servants to take. This was all publicly viewable; it was clear what had happened," Sharkey said.
"They were upset that the Daily Star saw it, as if you could somehow cover that up. The attitude is that it should have been covered up, which I thought was bizarre," he said.
Sharkey said several hikers were taking their own photos of the vandalized saguaros, and any one of them could have contacted the media.
He said he is saddened by not being able to continue his work at the park.
"We live near the park, and we love the park, and we really feel like we're kind of neighbors of the park, and we kind of feel like we're custodians of the park," he said.
The vandals have not been identified, Fisher said. An investigation is underway, and the park's staff is researching methods to clean the cacti - many of which are 100 to 150 years old - that will not result in further damage.
Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at email@example.com or at 573-4224.