By Richard Rhinehart ~ August 6th, 2012. Filed under: Cave Survey, Caving News, Conservation.
Denver, Colorado, August 1, 2012 – A new closure order of public caves in the Rocky Mountain Region by the Regional Forester of the U.S. Forest Service signed today in Golden, Colorado will allow exemptions for members of two private cave organizations.
Although members of the general public continue to be excluded from entering any public cave on Forest Service lands in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, members of the Alabama-based National Speleological Society and the Kentucky-based Cave Research Foundation will be allowed to request permits to visit caves for research, scientific study, exploration and survey.
The closure order, the third issued by the regional office without public hearings, is considered an emergency, in response to the potential risk of the spread of the fungus that causes White Nose Syndrome in bats. In the eastern United States, millions of bats have died from the fungus infection, which is an irritant and wakes the bats during their winter hibernation. Bats in the Rocky Mountain Region are as yet not infected by the fungus, which is mostly spread by bat-to-bat contact. Some biologists suspect that human transmission of the fungus is possible. The fungus does not affect humans or other animals.
Colorado cavers have mixed feelings regarding the third year of the closure, although details of the new cave access and permitting system are yet to be determined. Derek Bristol, the Chairman of the Colorado Cave Survey, an internal organization of the National Speleological Society, has been in communication with the Forest Service during the planning of the new closure order.
â€śWhile these exemptions are an important step towards restoring legitimate access to public land, they continue to exclude a large number of responsible cavers who are not members of these private organizations,â€ť said Bristol in regard to the new exemptions to the closure that will allow the two private organizations access to the caves. â€śThis new closure order also unnecessarily continues the ban on access to non-bat caves during the winter months. The organized cave community is very concerned about the impact of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) on hibernating bat populations, and supports taking appropriate precautions such as decontaminating cave gear to prevent the very small possibility of human transmission of the disease. We also support targeted closures of significant bat caves and the active collection of baseline bat and bat habitat data before the disease arrives in the Rocky Mountain region. Caves are important and sensitive resources that need to be managed for a multitude of reasons beyond just bats. The blanket cave closure orders are an ineffective and unenforceable reaction to an unproven threat (human transmission of WNS) that inhibits bat research, WNS monitoring, cave science, survey and exploration, conservation and restoration, education, and responsible recreation.â€ť
Other cavers are less willing to accept the continuation of the order, even though access will be permitted for members of the two organizations. In Colorado, there are less than 450 members of the National Speleological Society; Cave Research Foundation members in the state number less than ten. Other regional states have fewer members of these organizations. Estimates of visitors to Forest caves in Colorado prior to the July 2010 closure order range in the thousands, with popular caves like Fulford south of Eagle attracting dozens of casual visitors each weekend.
By adding the exemption for members of these organizations, the Forest Service believes they will encourage cavers to undertake scientific studies and inventory of public caves in exchange for access. No recreational cave visitation will be permitted. The Forest Service reports they can legally add an exemption to the closure policy since the agency has current Memorandums of Understanding with both organizations to conduct research on their lands.
Owing to budget limitations, the Forest does not have funding to aggressively pursue violators of the closure policy. Instead, they are asking the public to voluntarily stay away from caves for the duration of the closure.
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