Published by the American Geological Institute
of the Earth Sciences
|One of Nature’s most fascinating phenomena is often buried in secrecy.
During the National Speleological Society (NSS) Conference 2000, held June
26-30 in Elkins, W. Va., a special presentation devoted to cave exploration
featured the ongoing discoveries in the Omega cave system in Virginia.
A recently discovered complex cave, Omega Cave, is now the deepest known
cave in the eastern United States, reaching 1,260 feet deep and over 10
miles in length. But its discoverers won’t reveal its location — or even
the county in which it lies.
Omega Cave is not alone in its secrecy. As an increasing number of people seek to explore caves, many landowners struggle to protect their properties, while cavers strive to gain access.
Access to a cave depends on the number of previous visitors, the organisms and ecosystems in the cave, the presence of endangered species, its geologic features, its beauty, its danger and the owner, says Emily Davis, a volunteer for the NSS and the Northeastern Cave Conservancy (NCC).
Margaret Palmer gazes at the large gypsum
crystals in the Chandelier Ballroom of New
Mexico's Lechuguilla Cave. Photos courtesy
of Arthur Palmer, State University of New York
Cave conservancies now protect newly discovered caves from access because they may have future value. For example, Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico is home to bacteria not known to exist anywhere else on Earth. Newly discovered caves such as Omega Cave are carefully preserved to “err on the side of caution,” Davis says.
Sometimes both caves and people can become victims of indiscriminate
disclosure. Tour guides led visitors along set paths through what was once
a “show cave” in New York, she says. But in the late 1960s it fell into
disuse and was closed to the public. Still, the cave remained on the old
maps and trespassing became a problem.
Here, Magaret Palmer stops next to Lechuguilla's
Lake Chandelar, a small lake rimmed with calcite
|Broken walkways and an 18-foot drop at the cave’s entrance posed dangers.
Professional cavers often were called on to rescue hurt or trapped amateurs.
Now the NCC owns the cave and is attempting to rescue it from the beer
bottles and broken glass. The society grants permits for timed visits and
blocks driving access with large boulders, though some people still sneak
But even cavers ask for access limitations at times. Cavers advocate the secrecy to appease landowners and to protect caves. Secrecy stems from a need to protect all involved: potential cavers, cave owners and the cave itself.
Linda Baker Devine of the NSS Board of Governors bought a small cave in West Virginia because, as a caver, she wanted the site open. Now, as a cave owner, her cave has remained open, but she is nervous about the potential for lawsuits from injured cavers. Even though cave laws protect owners from liability claims, owners still face court defense fees. “Liability is the biggest problem,” she says.
The ever-present dangers of caving loom large for both cavers and cave owners. Because of the dangers, the only way to ensure open access to caves is for individual cavers, such as Devine, and cave organizations to purchase them, Devine says.
Purchasing a cave isn’t always an option. Often a small group of cavers communicates with the landowner to set rules for access. Owners sometimes opt to lease parcels of land approaching the cave entrance, thereby shifting responsibility and liability to the renters.
The relationship with an owner is very sensitive, Devine says. Cavers are being especially careful about keeping the Omega cave location secret so no one attempts to trespass on the site. Such an intrusion would ruin the chance of access for all, she says.