The U.S. Forest Service is investigating after vandalism was reported on a small island at Parksville Lake in Polk County, Tennessee, and officials at Lee University in Cleveland are looking into connections with an on-campus club.
A social media post with photos taken on the island showed small handmade flags, one bearing the Greek letters of a fraternity, and a tree or trees that appeared to have been cut down, but officials aren't saying much.
In her post Tuesday, Julie Thornton Johnson noted there are two islands on Parksville Lake visible from U.S. Highway 64. The island where the alleged vandalism took place can be seen from the highway in the Cherokee National Forest.
"It's gotten smaller and smaller over the years, yet the trees have done their best to hang on and were flourishing," she wrote in the post.
She said someone "took it upon themselves to litter the island ... and cut down the trees" and that they "left the island with no chance of regrowth for these trees."
In a follow-up phone call Thursday, Johnson, a longtime guide on the Ocoee River, said a friend of hers who goes out to the island on Parksville Lake daily to watch the sunset took the photos after consecutive visits Monday and Tuesday.
"On Tuesday, he went back out with his girlfriend and her kid and saw the flag flying off of a freshly cut pine tree. It was fresh with no sap like it had just been done," she said. "He said, 'I don't know what to do with this,' and I said, 'Well, let's post it on Facebook and see if we get anything from it.'"
The forest service acknowledged there was an investigation but offered no details.
"It would be inappropriate for us to publicly comment on an ongoing law enforcement investigation," U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Andrea Baquerizo said Thursday in an email. "What I can say is we take these matters very seriously and are working to identity the extent of the vandalism."
Lee University spokesperson Kendra Gray emailed a statement.
"The university is aware of the incident and has been in touch with members of the club, who are cooperating with the process, providing the necessary information, and are ready to take whatever steps necessary to remedy this situation," the statement said. "This is an unfortunate event and does not reflect our core value of responsible citizenship for our students. Lee is proud to be situated in this beautiful region and thankful for the opportunities it affords the Lee community and would never condone vandalism or defacement of property of any type."
Johnson later heard from Lee officials assuring her they were looking into it, she said, and they assured her there would be repercussions.
"It's just an obvious disregard for our lakes and rivers, and I stand up for that kind of thing," Johnson said. "I'm not trying to ruin anybody's life or give Lee a bad name, but we've got to stand up for Earth."