By Richard Rhinehart ~ July 27th, 2010. Filed under: Caving News, Conservation.
President Abraham Lincoln, in his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, appealed to a country facing an impassable division that would ultimately result in Civil War. He plead to his countrymen for reason and caution and to not allow passions of the day to rule:
â€śWe are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.â€ť
In Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West, today we face a similar division among colleagues and friends. The United States Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture, responding to the steady spread of the White Nose Syndrome pathogen across the nation, feels it cannot stand by and allow bats to continue to die. Although science suggests the pathogen is spread by bat-to-bat contact, science also cannot rule out the possibility that humans may somehow play a role. So, in the absence of any definitive answer, the federal government allows passion to rule. Following innuendos of lawsuits from the Center for Biological Diversity, and heartbreaking stories of eastern bat colonies losing hundreds of thousands of bats, the Region 2 directors of the US Forest Service ignored science and decided that all caves and inactive mines on US Forest Service land throughout the region, regardless of whether they are known to harbor bats, will be closed to all human visitation for a period of at least one calendar year. This closure, they explain, will allow science to provide an answer to the origin of the pathogen, its spread across the nation and to save the remaining bats of the Western Hemisphere.
Unfortunately, science seldom works to an arbitrary schedule, particularly when the Congress of the United States fails to provide adequate funding to encourage greater study. The result will be that humans will continue to visit public caves since Forest officials admit they are powerless to enforce a closure over thousands of square miles of land and sadly, bats will continue to die in unprecedented numbers. Signs may be posted at popular, known caves, but the US Forest Service has neither the manpower nor the funding to effectively enforce the closure order or prosecute violations.
Unfortunately, this closure may also result in the irreparable severing of more than four decades of close cooperation, consultation and friendship between US Forest Service officials, bat biologists and cavers. Since the founding of the Colorado Grotto in Denver in 1951 as the first chapter of the National Speleological Society between the Missouri Valley and the west coast, cave enthusiasts and scientists have systematically discovered, explored, surveyed and studied thousands of caves on Forest lands in the Rocky Mountain West. Although official channels of communication will remain open between the Colorado Cave Survey and the US Forest Service, the majority of cavers of Colorado and the region have made it clear to their elected leaders that full sharing of information will cease until the closure order is lifted. This is greatly troubling to the US Forest Service and to the individual Forests, where cavers have provided valuable information assisting federal officials with land use management policy, protection of resources and increased scientific knowledge.
The question is how â€śCaving Armageddonâ€ť can be avoided. Cavers, who know the caves and the resources they contain, see no reason to provide data or information to Forest officials who ignored long, cooperative relationships, as well as meetings and letters from cavers, and instead chosen to lock out their colleagues. Forest officials want to see the relationship continued, with cavers providing data and information, even though they wonâ€™t have an opportunity to revisit the caves, for at least one year, or perhaps five, ten or 20 years.
Cavers also are concerned with the degradation of natural resources that will almost certainly occur within the region. With many cavers staying away from the best-known caves, and US Forest officials not having the resources to effectively patrol these caves, vandals will have free reign for the duration of the closure. Gates may be damaged or destroyed, speleothems broken and removed, and spray paint added to formerly pristine walls.
An example of ineffective federal management can be found in Wyomingâ€™s Shirley Mountains, where Bureau of Land Management officials once gated Cave Creek Cave. In this remote region southwest of Casper, federal officials never patrol the caves. As such, the caveâ€™s gate was not only broken open, but the entire door of the gate taken off and left laying on the floor sometime in the 1980s. When contacted about the damaged gate, the Bureauâ€™s office in charge of the resource was unaware there even was a cave, much less that they had once gated it and managed access. Such is likely the fate of many of the popularly-known caves within the five state US Forest Service Region 2.
Unfortunately, destruction of cave resources is not something that will be repaired when the caves are reopened to the public. Damage to the caves will be for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Today’s decisions will be seen for generations of Americans.
A decade ago, a law enforcement official for the White River National Forest lamented he could not keep vandals from spray painting the walls of popular Spring Cave, southeast of Meeker on the White River. He simply did not have the time or the energy to patrol the cave more than a handful of times each summer. With the closure of all caves and mines in the region, estimated by US Forest Service officials to number 30,000 or more, Forest law enforcement officials can never keep track of what is happening at all sites, allowing our nationâ€™s underground treasures to be defiled for all time.
Perhaps, as President Lincoln once suggested, â€śthe better angels of our natureâ€ť will allow federal officials to quickly move beyond the closure and instead adapt a targeted closure of those caves and inactive mines that are most at risk from the White Nose Syndrome pathogen. Cavers know where these caves can be found, and are willing and able to help monitor these caves, providing timely information and data to biologists. With a targeted closure, other caves, including those that are popular among the general public such as Coloradoâ€™s Fulford Cave, or the thousands of caves that do not harbor bats, can then be reopened by the US Forest Service, allowing effective patrolling by law enforcement officials.
President Lincolnâ€™s words from his First Inaugural still ring true today, as if he were speaking of White Nose Syndrome and the protection of bats and our nationâ€™s natural resources:
â€śMy countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you in hot haste to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it.â€ťTags: bats, caves, closure, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, US Forest Service, White Nose Syndrome, Wyoming