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Cave and Karst Management

Exhibit 1 - Management Strategies

Four main characteristics should be considered in developing a management prescription, or strategy, for any particular cave: appropriate use, scientific values, aesthetic values, and safety concerns. It is generally desirable to address each cave individually, but when a park has many caves with similar characteristics, it may be more practical to group similar caves together and manage them by classification. Although no cave will fit exactly into one classification, past experience has proven the effectiveness of this system.

A cave’s management prescription may be changed as a result of findings from additional exploration or by the alteration or removal of a hazard or resource responsible for the initial strategy.

Appropriate use

Highly developed caves are managed to provide maximum visitor comfort and convenience (e.g., hard-surfaced trails, handrails, electric lights, sanitation facilities, concession services, and elevators) and a variety of interpretive media (e.g., electronic self-guided tours, interpretive signs, and ranger talks). The highly developed cave provides an opportunity for most visitors to tour the cave without special clothing, equipment, knowledge, or skills. It fulfills the desires of most visitors and permits large numbers of people to tour the cave daily.

Minimally developed caves are managed to provide relatively easy access with minimal modification of cave resources. Development normally consists of a designated trail following an easy-to-walk route. This fulfills the needs of those that wish for a more natural cave experience without requiring special skills or equipment.

Some undeveloped caves may be managed to permit visits only when scheduled in advance and when a designated NPS trip leader accompanies the visitor. Scheduling would be subject to the availability of a qualified trip leader. This policy would normally be applied to caves containing sensitive natural and/or cultural resources, often of unusual quality. Trip leaders would be responsible for interpreting the cave and for ensuring that each group takes all feasible precautions to leave the cave unimpaired for future visitors. Although access may be relatively easy, it may also be quite difficult in some caves, requiring crawling and/or extensive vertical work. When such trips require specialized skills, participants would be required to furnish their own equipment.

Undeveloped caves that are less easily impacted may be visited by permit without an NPS escort, if visitors are conscientious and conservation minded. Cavers are responsible for providing their own equipment. Anyone failing to comply with park policies regarding conservation of cave resources and /or with safety guidelines for cave entry should be denied a cave permit.

In some cases, a cave might be closed to general use pending further evaluation for designation in another intended use. This situation typically occurs with a newly discovered cave which requires further exploration and/or inventory to evaluate how it should be managed; or when a cave has been explored and known for years, but has not been sufficiently inventoried; or if a cave is well-explored and inventoried, but a decision to manage it for a specific use is dependent upon the results of resource impact studies elsewhere. While closed to regular use, cave entry should be approved only for minimum administrative purposes and research.

Scientific Values

Scientific resources may be geological, archeological, ethnographic, biological, or paleontological in nature, or they may be rare speleothems. A cave containing speleothems or other resources of scientific value that, because of their size or their location within the cave, are not easily subject to vandalism, disruption, or destruction by visitor use may also be able to handle frequent visitation.

Some caves or sections of caves contain resources of scientific value that could and/or would be seriously disturbed by frequent visits, or by visits of cavers unfamiliar with the cave’s unique resources (e.g., biological species that have a sensitive habitat or are otherwise threatened). If a cave contains scientific resources that are either of such size or so positioned within the cave that they are unusually susceptible to breakage and/or vandalism, or contains other resources of scientific value that could be seriously disturbed or destroyed by visitor use, such use should be more restricted.

Some caves contain resources of special scientific value that would be easily altered, even by careful use of the cave. They should be closed to general use because they contain paleontological, archeological, historic, ethnographic, biotic, or other sensitive resources for which only specially approved research would be allowed. Designation of certain caves as research caves does not exclude administrative entry to monitor research activity and impacts.

Aesthetic Values

The NPS is mandated to preserve the scenery, or the aesthetic qualities, of caves. If a cave contains few or no features of scenic value, or if such resources are present within the cave but they are of the type that cannot, without great effort, be destroyed or removed, then even frequent visitation by cavers may be acceptable.

A cave might be closed when it is difficult to enter without causing irreparable damage to extremely fragile resources, or if it contains an endangered species that could be threatened by visitor use. Some caves contain speleothems that are of unusual quality and/or are extremely delicate and susceptible to breakage, or resources of scientific value that could be seriously disturbed or destroyed by cavers. Examples of such speleothems include selenite needles, gypsum flowers or hair, epsomite or mirabolite formations or crystals, and helictites. Such caves may need more protection than those mentioned above.

Safety Concerns

Some consideration should also be given to the relative safety of the cave environment. Although most caves should not be considered hazardous, the environment does pose some risks, particularly to cavers who are not sufficiently skilled or careful. Parks should endeavor to inform cavers of the obstacles and potential dangers they may encounter, including:

  • complexity of passages
  • tightness and extent of crawls
  • presence and magnitude of vertical drops
  • areas with loose rock
  • length and overall difficulty of the route
  • flooding potential

Caves containing unusual hazards such as airborne diseases, dangerous gases, structural instability should only be entered by qualified cavers with special equipment, and only if the need for information is proportionate to the risk involved. Extra safety precautions should be taken, and special communications and rescue capabilities should be available.

In a few cases, a cave is extremely hazardous, even for the most skilled cavers. Parks should endeavor to close caves falling into this category to all use except the minimum required for administrative entry.

Cave and Karst Management Table of Contents | RM#77 Table of Contents
update on 02/05/2004  I   http://www.nature.nps.gov/Rm77/caves/Exhibit1.cfm   I  Email: Contact Us
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