Lawmakers stiffen penalties for cave vandals
By David Saleh Rauf
Published June 20, 2007
Deep beneath the surface: That’s where some of Texas’ most revered natural
resources — caves, caverns and rare rock formations — can be found.
Each year, the largest of Texas’ seven show caves, Natural Bridge Caverns
located between New Braunfels and San Antonio, attracts about 250,000
visitors. The figure represents not only the intrinsic economic,
environmental and scientific value of the cave formation — but the level of
awe generated by an ancient, naturally occurring phenomenon common in the
Central Texas region.
For many, however, the nearly 4,000 caves native to the state of Texas are
not being protected by laws with enough muscle to deter potential vandals
from destroying priceless rock formations.
Case in point: Just 200 miles west of New Braunfels, in Sonora, one of the
rarest — and most popular — cave formations in the world was vandalized in
On Friday, Gov. Rick Perry signed two identical bills — House Bill 3502 and
Senate Bill 1524 — that will increase the penalty for anyone convicted of
vandalizing or defacing a cave in Texas. The measures will amend the Cavern
Protection Act established by the state Legislature in 1979, which set
penalties for first time offenders caught defacing or vandalizing caves at
the misdemeanor level.
The bills — authored respectively by Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville,
and Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio — were motivated by the case in
Sonora, where during a tour of the caverns, the trademark “butterfly
formation,” was irreparably damaged when someone in a tour group snapped off
the upper right wing of the butterfly.
Almost one year later and the missing piece still has not been returned and
no one has been charged in the case, cave co-owner Stanley Mayfield said.
The reason: Despite being a priceless and irreplaceable piece of history,
the vandalism at Sonora Caverns only registered as a misdemeanor. As a
result, the case was given low priority on the Sutton County Sheriff’s
Department’s to-do list, Mayfield said.
“Among the cave community and those specialists who study rock formations it
’s world famous,” Mayfield said. “But to the guys who handle law enforcement
in this part of the country it meant nothing.”
The lack of response from local law enforcement in the situation with the
“Butterfly Formation” prompted concern among cave enthusiasts — including
former Comal County District Attorney Dib Waldrip — who in turn called for
stiffer laws, with harsher penalties, to deter potential cave vandals and
prompt more police action in such cases.
State-lawmakers from the Central Texas area — including Wentworth and Rep.
Nathan Macias, R-Bulverde — heard the calls from cave enthusiasts and
championed measures during the 80th Legislature to protect and preserve
caves in Texas.
“I thinks its imperative that we ensure that we protect those natural
resources,”said Macias, who co-authored the House measure signed by Perry.
“I hope it goes a long way toward the protection of these natural resources
that I think are vital to the community, both in recreation as well
The bills effectively up the ante for anyone defacing a cave in the state,
giving prosecutors the ability to seek state jail felony convictions in
cases involving cave vandalism. A person found excavating, removing or
defacing a cave without a permit issued through the General Land Office
currently commits a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in
jail and a maximum fine up to $2,000. Under both measures, the offense would
now be a class A misdemeanor, which could carry up to one year of jail time
and a maximum fine of $4,000.
The bill also increases penalties for vandalizing any part of a cave,
regardless of whether it is owned by the state or by a private entity. Under
the measures, the current class A misdemeanor charge for first time
convicted cave vandals will now become a state-jail felony that could carry
with it the potential for 180 days to two years in state jail and an
optional fine of up to $10,000.
Furthermore, the bill also increases punishment for selling rock formations,
from a class B misdemeanor to a class A misdemeanor. The measure will take
effect Sept. 1.
“Anytime you’re looking at punishment for any sort of activity, I think
deterrence is always an element in the decision making,” Macias said
Brad Wuest, president of the National Caves Association and CEO of Natural
Bridge Caverns, said although knowing acts of cave vandalism don’t occur
frequently, stiffer penalties need to be in place because “you could have a
formation that has been growing for 300,000 years that someone reaches out
Wuest said the National Caves Association has followed the progress of the
bills in the Texas Legislature. As a result of the success that the cave
protection and preservation bills received this session in Texas, the
National Caves Association is eyeing other states where similar measures
could have an impact, Wuest said.
“I’m hoping the issue is going to generate this same kind of response in
other states,” Wuest said. “Hopefully that is something that would come
about as this.”