The NSS, conservation, and the sacrificial cave.

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The NSS, conservation, and the sacrificial cave.

Postby GroundquestMSA » May 9, 2016 8:58 pm

The National Speleological Society is, according to its mission statement, dedicated to the conservation of caves and cave resources. This dedication seems to be primarily manifest in the promotion of the “Caver’s Creed,” an idea, borrowed from the wider naturalist/conservationist movement, that explorers of wilderness should “leave no trace.” In its most commonly known form, this creed states, “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.” While this motto may be useful as an elementary means to remind cavers that it is unacceptable to befoul a cave with litter or to engage in needless demolition, it is also an oversimplification so vast as to become counterproductive if taken to be the sum of cave conservation. This is so for several reasons.

For one thing, it is impossible to “leave nothing but footprints.” It would be unrealistic and inappropriate to believe that we can travel through caves, or do anything, anywhere, without leaving our marks and the detritus of our passing. So what the caver’s motto really means to most cavers is, “Leave nothing visible to humans.” From this angle it becomes obvious that the caver’s motto is less about cave conservation than it is about preserving the so called “wilderness experience.” While these ideals overlap considerably, they are by no means the same thing. To think of them as the same thing creates the dangerous attitude that things that do not impact the “wilderness experience,” that is, things we cannot see, do not matter. Cave conservation, if it is to be anything other than anthropocentric or token, needs to be elementally understood before it can be reasonably and responsibly enacted. This involves understanding what cave resources exist, and determining their relative values as well as how each of them are impacted by a wide range of possible factors in a wide range of quantities. This will take a long time, and I suspect that we may eventually find that we have been wasting time with some of our conservation schemes, while being sadly negligent in other areas.

Another obvious problem with the Caver’s Creed, and one tied to the idea of wilderness, is that leaving footprints is not always acceptable. And besides footprints, the Creed suggests the inevitability of handprints and knee-prints, and of paths of mud left from the butts and bellies of cavers. It is not the only, or necessarily the most important of the cave resources, but aesthetic beauty is a significant resource worthy of protection. The caver’s motto falls heartbreakingly short in guiding behavior within caves whose beauty is easily destroyed by these marks. This inadequacy is hopefully becoming widely understood. The latest edition of the NSS’ Guide to Responsible Caving amends the motto to say, “Leave nothing but carefully placed footprints,” which is at least a slight improvement. Cavers in several of the world’s most stunningly beautiful caves go to extreme measures to ensure that they leave no footprints, no trails of mud. Most cave explorers though, view the changing and re-changing of clothes or practicing fastidious travel to be too much of a sacrifice of their time, and necessary only in “world-class” caves. The results are unfortunate but unsurprising.

I have in mind two West Virginia caves that are very familiar to many cavers in the eastern United States, both in Greenbrier County. Bone-Norman Cave is privately owned but with open access, and contains highly decorated passages, the most famous of which is known as The Great White Way, and which is remote enough to preclude intense “non-caver” traffic. Helectites here are a big draw, and the walls are crossed with white trails of evaporite. But at hand level here are brown streaks on the crystalline walls. Some helectites are broken. Most depressingly, the floors are a fine crush of crystals, the remnants of deposits that must have been stunning on first discovery. Similar is the Heaven passage of Maxwelton Cave. This cave is locked and conservancy-owned and sees only caver traffic. The Heaven passage is the only route in and out of the cave (more than a dozen miles long) since the burial of the natural entrances by flood and airport construction. That the portal to such a cave was dug here in the first place was a major conservation mistake, but the habits of the cavers who have mapped and explored the cave since reinforce the failure the caver’s motto to protect what ought to be protected. I have much respect for the cavers who are mapping this cave, and have joined in these efforts on three or four occasions. Nonetheless, the damage done to the Heaven passage cannot be healed or outweighed by a high-quality, modern map. It is difficult, even physically painful, for me to see these caves. The caver’s motto was not in their case an adequate conservation message.

If these two things are true; that a real understanding of cave conservation has not yet been reached and will take a long while to reach, and that the aesthetic conservation measures within our grasp are not being properly implemented, what can be done? The only meaningful way forward that I can see involves the reduction of cave traffic. This is an unpopular idea among cavers for obvious reasons, and many of us (including myself) will do our best to practice care but will not be willing to reduce our time spent caving. The NSS though, has the ability to decrease footfall in caves.

A recent article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press appeared under the heading, “For 25 years, one local group has worked to preserve the region's vast network of caves.” The article was about the Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc., an organization that owns or leases more than 130 caves in the eastern US. SCCI has a stated purpose to protect caves, and seems to do a good job of managing and caring for its holdings. But the biggest way that SCCI protects caves goes unstated on its website. This is by allowing recreational access, thereby condensing caver traffic to fewer caves. This is really a better version of the old idea of the “sacrificial cave.”

Imagine the results if the NSS were to also take up the nationwide acquisition of recreationally significant caves that were best suited to handle high volume traffic without significant damage to the “wilderness experience,” and to facilitate access to members and non-members (perhaps with separate conditions), all while presenting a well-crafted conservation message. I believe such efforts, if properly publicized, would lead to an increase in NSS membership as well as a decrease in traffic in other caves and a greater awareness of cave resources among unaffiliated cave explorers. Cavers have developed much skill in cave restoration. What better place to practice speleothem repair, graffiti and trash removal etc. than in caves that are providing a quality experience to visitors, thus negating their need to cave elsewhere.

The NSS asked me for money in an email today. This to pay for a great building that is said in the email to require ten-thousand dollars monthly to mortgage. How this building aids in the protection of caves I am not sure. I am sure that I will be giving the NSS no more of my money so long as it follows the trend of society in general toward more and more superficiality. I do not know if my ideas about cave conservation are good, sound, or reasonable ones. But they are at least ideas, and I believe it personally important to give much thought to the care of the Earth and of caves. Later in this space I will try to talk about cave gating, cave flagging, cave photography, and the role of cavers in educating landowners. I may be repeating ideas or even phrases that I’ve used elsewhere or at other times, but I’m trying to get this all out while the spirit is on me.
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Re: The NSS, conservation, and the sacrificial cave.

Postby Cheryl Jones » May 13, 2016 12:44 pm

A better message: "carefully placed footprints" ...and knee, elbow, and butt prints. ??
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Re: The NSS, conservation, and the sacrificial cave.

Postby GroundquestMSA » May 13, 2016 2:02 pm

I think it's time to abandon slogans altogether.
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Re: The NSS, conservation, and the sacrificial cave.

Postby KeyserSoze » May 30, 2016 7:57 pm

There is a lot that could be said for a motto and for educating cavers on conservation and leave no trace principles. The one thing that I'll touch on in your post is something I have strong feelings on, which is cave acquisition. I support cavers owning caves by any means and I don't think it should be a competition between groups. I recently signed up for a sustaining membership to the SCCI and I happily donate to other caver acquisition fundraisers as they present themselves. If you would like to see the NSS own more caves then you should be donating $$$ because that is what is needed to make it happen. There is a specific cave acquisition fund that you can donate to for just that purpose, see this page https://caves.org/nssapps/donate.shtml. My question about the NSS fund is who is in charge of it? I'm assuming there is a committee. Do they hold meetings or offer a forum for input or discussion? That is something I could get involved in if needed.
This signature is really funny
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Re: The NSS, conservation, and the sacrificial cave.

Postby GroundquestMSA » May 30, 2016 10:26 pm

KeyserSoze wrote:There is a lot that could be said for a motto

Let's hear it.

KeyserSoze wrote: The one thing that I'll touch on in your post is something I have strong feelings on, which is cave acquisition. I support cavers owning caves by any means and I don't think it should be a competition between groups.


Why should cavers own caves?
If various groups of cavers want to own caves for different reasons, why should there not be a competition between groups?
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Re: The NSS, conservation, and the sacrificial cave.

Postby GroundquestMSA » May 30, 2016 10:41 pm

KeyserSoze wrote: If you would like to see the NSS own more caves then you should be donating $$$ because that is what is needed to make it happen. There is a specific cave acquisition fund that you can donate to for just that purpose


Despite the fact that the NSS owns some caves, cave acquisition does not appear to be a priority. I certainly haven't seen any pleas for help in purchasing caves. The NSS-owned caves I am familiar with seem to be awkwardly managed. I will not give money to a fund that hasn't got any purpose, and buying caves alone is not necessarily a worthy purpose.
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