LEGAL PROTECTION FOR CAVES AND KARST

Caves need protection. Destruction of caves on Federal Lands, and the desire to prevent further damage, resulted in the passage of the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1989. This statute protects caves in National Parks, National Forests, BLM land, and other lands administered by the Departments of Agriculture and Interior. As of 2001, twenty-six states have also enacted cave protection laws. In addition, endangered species protection extends also to caves in which rare and threatened species live.

Sadly, more protection for both cave and karst resources is needed. Most protection does not extend to the karst areas above caves, but as the study of karst groundwater proves, what goes into the ground above caves will end up in the water supply at the bottom, contaminating the cave, and resources tapped by human communities as well.

In an ideal world, people would care for natural resources, using them with care, not wasting or wantonly destroying them. Damage done to a cave heals slowly, if ever, over eons rather than years. For this reason, caves and the natural contents within caves are non-renewable resources.

Unfortunately, continued destruction of caves and cave resources means that conservation must be a matter of law as well as of good intention and stewardship.

Although some cave visitors may not see the harm of taking cave formations as a souvenir of their "adventure," or in leaving a spray-painted signature as a record of their visit, or in dumping unwanted trash in a cave, such actions will significantly alter the cave as well as the caving experience for those who come after. Formations that have been painted, broken, or, in some cases, merely handled, cease to grow in our lifetimes or even in our children's children's lifetimes. Garbage may include batteries, petroleum products, other chemical wastes, human and animal wastes, animal carcasses, and metals, all of which can contaminate water supplies.

Because caves are unique environments offering opportunities for research, education, recreation, and in many cases human sustenance, it is important for visitors to hold a "leave no trace" ethic and to cave softly. Because cave and karst systems are waterways and reservoirs for a resource that our communities depend on, it is important not only for cavers but for all people to support efforts and legislation which protect our karst and cave resources for ourselves and for future generations.

Legal Protection for Caves and Karst, text by Thomas Lera. Pages and their contents Copyright 2001-2004 by the Conservation Division of the National Speleological Society, except where otherwise noted.