Cave Conservation
Introduction to Cave Conservation

Caves are a non-renewable resource. We say that because of the amount of time it takes for a cave to be formed and to become decorated with beautiful speleothems. That happens in geologic time, not human time - thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years. Consider how a limestone cave is formed: solution of limestone rock by water seeping through cracks, one little water drop at a time, with the dissolved minerals carried somewhere else by the water until the fragile chemical conditions are altered and the minerals are instead deposited. The deposited minerals build up to create the speleothems we find so fascinating. That all occurs one water drop at a time, one tiny bit of crystal with each water drop, adding up over timeframes that make our lives seem insignificant in comparison.

When we step into a cave, we see one tiny little slice of that cave's lifespan. We see stalactites glistening with wetness, dropping little drops of water on the stalagmites below them. Removed from the atmospheric conditions of the cave environment, those same beautiful formations will lose their water content, dry out and become dusty lumps of rock, much less beautiful than they were in their natural existence. And in the cave, will the broken stalactite ever regenerate? They may, but only in the course of geologic time, if at all. We will never live long enough to see them again in their former brilliance. More likely is that the cave will continue on its life course of drying out and slowly breaking down and collapsing before the stalactite will have a chance to regenerate. In practical terms, the cave is a non-renewable resource.

People have an effect on caves whenever we enter them. We attempt to "cave softly": to be as careful and cautious as we can, to not bump and break anything, to not leave muddy footprints across pristine flowstone, to not disturb the bats or other naturally occurring life forms that may inhabit the cave. But every visit to a cave leaves its mark, in some small way. The footprints add up over many visits to be a muddy trail. The occasional unfortunate mistake that causes a small crystal to be broken gets repeated by others so that eventually a whole area of formerly pristine crystals is damaged. We do what we can to limit our damage. And that is the whole summation of cave conservation - limiting our damage, and attempting to restore the cave to some semblance of itself before the damage occurred.

Escabrosa Grotto consistently works for cave conservation. We pick up the garbage that thoughtless and careless people leave behind. We try to erase the graffiti left when unknowledgeable and inexperienced people think they are saving themselves by marking a way through the cave. We try to limit the places we walk by marking off trails to be used. We construct cave gates that limit the numbers of people who enter the cave, or we restrict access to responsible cavers who do attempt to limit their damage. At the same time we assure that our gates are bat-friendly so that bats have their natural habitat is available to them. We work with cave owners and managers, including the US Forest Service, for better cave management systems to ensure that the people who enter the cave are aware of the potential damage of their visit, and minimize it, and to protect the environment outside of the cave so that the cave is not affected by exterior changes. We try to educate those new to caving about the caves and their vulnerability, so they will also minimize their impact. We even attempt to restore broken crystals, when we can, by gluing them back into their former places, which at least gives the illusion of complete speleothems and may allow them, over a period of many years, to restore themselves.

And, most importantly, we always remember to "cave softly". That is a reflection of the National Speleological Society's motto: "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but carefully placed footprints, and kill nothing but time."

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