A little girl returned a heart-shaped rock, accompanied by a heartfelt letter, to rangers at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina.
"Deep Creek was awsome!" the child wrote in neat, block letters, replete with misspellings. "I especialy liked Tom branch falls. I loved it so much, I wanted to have a soiveneir to come with me. So I took a rock. I'm sorry, and I want to return it."
Along with the rock, the girl enclosed a donation and a pencil drawing of the water fall. The missive was signed simply "Karina."
Park rangers were smitten with the child's honesty and pluck.
On the park's Facebook page, the rangers wrote, "Dear Karina, thank you so much for returning the rock! It has made its way back to Tom Branch Falls. We are so glad you enjoyed your visit. Already, you are becoming an amazing steward for the park."
The post also took the opportunity to deliver a gentle ecological lesson on the importance of not disturbing Mother Nature. "If every visitor took a rock home, that would mean 11 million rocks would be gone from the park every year!" the rangers wrote. "The park would definitely not be as beautiful as it was before."
The post also noted that rocks provide homes for hundreds of creatures, including salamanders, which the Smoky Mountains are known for. "Now that you know to leave nature the way you find it, we hope you will help share this message with others," the message concluded.
But there was a postscript. "PS: We love your drawing!"
Taking things, even something as small as a wildflower, is illegal at national parks. Because of the sheer size of annual visitors, such thefts can seriously disturb the ecosystems of protected sanctuaries.
Earlier this week, a French tourist couple made headlines after they were arrested for carrying 14 bottles of pristine sand they had scooped from the beaches of southern Sardinia, police said.
They could face as much as six years behind bars for the alleged theft. Such removals by thousands of visitors is eroding the area's stunning coastline, environmentalists say.