The Minimum-Impact Caving Code

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The Minimum-Impact Caving Code

Postby GroundquestMSA » Apr 11, 2015 11:53 pm

Nothing is simple,
not even simplification.

Thus, throwing away
the mail, I exchange
the complexity of duty
for the simplicity of guilt.


The April NSS News is the annual cave conservation issue. It contains the Minimum-Impact Caving Code, compiled by Jim and Val Werker from a variety of sources. Nothing in this set of guidelines is new to anyone who has been acquainted with caving organizations for very long, and most all of the suggestions have a time for application, but for some reason I found myself unsettled by their tone. Indeed, the official language with which some cavers speak of the underground seems related directly to the way that all people speak of things from which they are distanced. It seems that humans are being actively separated, physically and mentally, from nature. I'm talking, of course, about the idea that human impact is negative impact. This seems to be the stance of "the NSS," and of the Werkers and many other cavers.

As many, many people have stated, the ultimate Minimum-Impact Caving Code would be simple: Stay out of caves. By constructing a sort of compromise, cavers have either revealed a simple selfishness or they have claimed a right; the right to explore. What gives us that right? The right of animals to go underground (and to urinate and to defecate there) is not questioned because caves are their habitats. We cannot make that claim, but we have different rights than those animals. I believe that our natural curiosity and our ability explore and to learn provide a natural authorization to go places that we are in no position to call our habitat. Or in other words, to invite all of Earth (and more!) into our hearts and our thoughts, as Home. And so we can be "at Home" in a place that is not our "home" or "habitat". If then we have claimed the right to explore based on our ability and desire to do so, and we have legitimized that claim by accepting the Earth and its caves as our home, what rights might we have to impact that home? Only the natural rights of any creature. The difference is that, being in a unique position to destroy, we must impose limits on ourselves that animals needn't. But that doesn't mean that we must go too far the opposite way, and try to remove ourselves from the natural give and take of things.

Now, having built for ourselves an artificial habitat, we have been fooled into thinking that it is where we belong, and that we are somehow apart from nature. This is reflected by the way people spend recreational time outside. Nature is treated like a hostile alien place that cannot be tackled with success or with joy except through the implementation of "gear". I walk fairly regularly on a trail established by the state because it leads to a nice place to climb on the rocks and look out over the valley. Meeting people on the trail is fascinating. To see a healthy young couple in the woods no more than a twenty minute walk from their car, and to see that they are carrying a large backpack each, is incomprehensible to me. They have been taught, evidently, that this is what they need. This preoccupation with hardware is alive and well in the world of cavers, though they can be forgiven for being extra cautious. But another form of the same delusion is its opposite, not that we need be meticulously protected from nature, but that it should be wholly insulated from us. This is the idea behind the Minimum-Impact Code. To damn a man for leaving some of his hair and skin or some crumbs from his meal, or even other bodily "wastes", is to claim that he had no business being there in the first place, that he is not a creature at home.

The NSS' conservation site says: Cave resources should be protected by keeping wild caves wild and free from human manipulations and alterations that hamper the free play of natural forces, endanger the cave and karst ecosystems, or diminish the pleasure of future visitors.

If this statement doesn't contradict the Minimum-Impact Code (and itself), it at least allows a clear way around it. We are among the natural forces that should be given the freedom to act. We, even as occasional visitors, are part of the cave and karst ecosystem. To deny this is to deny us entirely our place as humans on the globe.

This doesn't mean that we have a right to be wanton. But it does mean that "minimum impact" may be misplaced priority. If our priority is instead the development of respect for the natural world (not just caves) and for each other, then we will be governed without law. I am certain that many, including the Werkers, recognize this, and view a list of guidelines as an effective shortcut to conservation. That it is. There is nothing bad in the Minimum-Impact Caving Code. But it denies us the welcome that we should feel to follow our honorable inclinations to explore. A set of guidelines that would truly show respect to both the cave and its visitors couldn't be printed on a single page of the News. It would be big. It would require many explanations and qualifications and examples. It's tone would be reflective instead of legislative. It would teach instead of command. It would motivate through honor and celebration instead of imposing guilt and apprehension. Someone with vast experience and plenty of good help should write it. All of the beautiful work of conservation done by the Werkers and many other cavers could be augmented by such an effort. The potential to positively affect behavior and motivation should not be ignored.
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Re: The Minimum-Impact Caving Code

Postby telestoat » Apr 12, 2015 10:03 am

Its true! Check out this book
Unfortunately, discouraging impact to any significant degree, generally seems to involve also management to a significant degree, which amounts to almost the same thing :sad: Well its not even that bad, but the worst thing either way is when people are so arrogant to tell others that their impact or non-impact is the RIGHT way. Wilderness, to me, is an attitude of just taking things in, and not expecting everything to happen in a predictable order like we do in broader society. If I come through a forest to a road, and I don't know where it leads in any visible direction, then it is legitimate wilderness to me at that point even if people did build it.

I find it ridiculous how some area can be made legal wilderness just by drawing a line on a map, really contrary in every way to how wilderness can be experienced anywhere that people care to look for it, but its how land management turns out to work, I guess... the only practical way.
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Re: The Minimum-Impact Caving Code

Postby ohiocaver » Apr 13, 2015 10:55 pm

Good book recommendation. Agree or disagree with its premise, UNCOMMON GROUND will make you think and examine your beliefs.
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Re: The Minimum-Impact Caving Code

Postby GroundquestMSA » Apr 15, 2015 8:36 pm

I've just finished reading Uncommon Ground's interesting lead essay by William Cronon, and fear that I've unintentionally sounded quite like a parrot in my comments above. If anything though, this should indicate that such thoughts are not unique to great thinker and writers. If I can recognize stagnancy and fallacy in the popular ways of thinking about conservation, so too can anyone willing.

Cronon's essay refutes, but only on the surface, my claim that we live in an "artificial" habitat. And an email I got this morning claims that I contradicted myself in this matter, asking, "If everything we do is so "natural", doesn't that include all the stuff you're calling artificial?"

No. As I said before, we have unique responsibilities. Not to preserve, but to live in and with nature. If our actions are directly detrimental to everything involved; our whole (physical, spiritual, intellectual) selves, our surroundings (including those we need for sustenance), and our neighbors (human and otherwise) then we are acting within our abilities, but not within our natural rights. The degree to which we should rightly be allowed to leave our mark on the world is not a determination I am qualified to make, but I think it's safe to say that it falls somewhere between urban/commercial/industrial hell and the Minimum Impact Code.
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Re: The Minimum-Impact Caving Code

Postby leeboop » Apr 17, 2015 11:01 am

To accent the Annual Conservation Issue, we launched a social media campaign that features one of the Minimum-Impact Caving Code (MICC) bullets each day. Whereas I also see limitations with the MICC, I think it is good content to share with early-career cavers. The truth is, I think that selfishness (especially in the case of purely recreational caving) is the case, as pointed out by GroundquestMSA:

GroundquestMSA wrote:As many, many people have stated, the ultimate Minimum-Impact Caving Code would be simple: Stay out of caves. By constructing a sort of compromise, cavers have either revealed a simple selfishness or they have claimed a right; the right to explore.

However, we see a lot of users, especially on Instagram, going into caves and doing damage. "#caving #carving" is far too frequent-- and we pass these posts to the Cave Vandalism Deterrence Committee. When we see people caving without helmets, we attempt to guide users toward their local grotto, with the hopes that they'll learn safe caving techniques from grotto members. But, I know many self-proclaimed "responsible cavers" go caving intoxicated, without gloves, smoke tobacco/etc, or even light off fireworks in caves. Well-respected caving icons unnecessarily lean against pristine walls or rest their hands on stalagmites. So, the objective of the daily posts, like this one (released today), is to increase awareness:

My opinion is that in the world of recreational caving, there is a serious problem with overuse. We tell beginner cavers, "Follow the elephant tracks!" -- which is immediately useful to the newbie but also rather sad. This MICC is the best of both worlds- reduce impact while understanding that we're making a difference, even if we're doing our best.
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Re: The Minimum-Impact Caving Code

Postby GroundquestMSA » May 30, 2015 12:45 pm

Lee, I've somehow overlooked your response until now. I can't tell if the goal was reinforcement or rebuttal, but it seems that you have misunderstood my stance just a bit. In citing selfishness as a possible reason for departure from the ultimate in minimum impact, I am not referring to cavers negatively. What we do in the cave may be inappropriately self-centered, but the selfishness that moves us to explore cannot rightly be spoken against. My sentence (that you quoted) was poorly written. I had intended to show that caving must either be inherently wrong, and our presence there a violation, or that we have certain rights to impact our world. I should have written, " As many, many people have stated, the ultimate Minimum-Impact Caving Code would be simple: Stay out of caves. By violating that decree, cavers raise a question: Is what appears to be a selfishness in actuality an exercise of our natural due?"
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Re: The Minimum-Impact Caving Code

Postby caver.adam » May 30, 2015 4:49 pm

I've always fallen back on the old "if a tree falls in the woods and there is no-one there to hear it" argument.

If the goal of minimum-impact is to prevent damage to water supply, to prevent pollution, to protect endangered species then we can discuss when it is appropriate to enter a cave and when it is not. For example, we might prohibit entering a hybernaculum of an endangered bat during hybernation season.

However, if our goal is to leave the cave perfectly preserved to protect its beauty...what's the point? If you can't enter a cave (in order to perfectly preserve it's beauty) then you don't whether it is perfectly preserved or not. Instead of establishing minimum impact (perfection) we should seek to establish realistic impact guidelines.
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