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Living on Karst

A Reference Guide for Landowners in Limestone Regions

Produced by the Cave Conservancy of the Virginias, June 1997

You Have a Cave on Your Property: Helpful Hints for the Cave Landowner

The Legal Aspects of Cave Ownership

Twenty-two states (including Virginia and West Virginia), Puerto Rico, and the Cherokee Nation currently have laws pertaining to the protection of caves. These laws cover a variety of topics ranging from definitions, protections of features, permits for excavation and scientific investigation, vandalism, and liability. Most state cave laws state that it is illegal to remove or damage anything from a cave, including rocks, formations, animals, or organisms. For further information on state cave laws, technical services, and management assistance contact your state natural resource management and conservation agencies.

Landowner Liability

Most state cave protection laws expressly limit the landowners' liability for scientific and recreational activities associated with caves. The West Virginia law reads: "Neither the owner of a cave nor his authorized agents acting within the scope of their authority are liable for injuries sustained by any person using such features for recreational or scientific purpose if the prior consent of the owner has been obtained and if no charge has been made for the use of such features."

Where to Go for Help

Many organizations are dedicated to caving and cave conservation:

Virginia Cave Board The Virginia Cave Protection Act provides for an advisory Cave Board. The Virginia Cave Board is administered by the Department of Conservation and Recreation and is active in environmental education and conservation of caves and karst. Please contact the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation for further information.

Cave Conservancy of the Virginias (CCV) The CCV is dedicated to the conservation of wild caves, caverns, and karst areas in the Virginia and West Virginia area. Please contact: Cave Conservancy of the Virginias, P.O. Box 7067, Richmond, Va. 23221.

Cave Registry ProgramThe Virginia and West Virginia Chapters of The Nature Conservancy maintain a cave registry program to encourage landowners to protect, voluntarily, the important caves or karst features on their land. The registry recognizes the value and beauty of these privately owned caves and honors those owners who volunteer to protect them. For more information, contact The Nature Conservancy Field Office in your state.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) The Nature Conservancy is a national conservation organization committed to preserving natural diversity. The Conservancy is a private, nonprofit group with field offices in all 50 states.

The Nature Conservancy Virginia Chapter, 1233-A Cedars Ct., Charlottesville, VA 22908. (804-295-6106).

The Nature Conservancy West Virginia Chapter, 723 Kanawha Blvd. East, Suite 500, Charleston, WV 25301. (304-345-4350).

National Speleological Society (NSS)The NSS is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the study, exploration, and conservation of caves and karst environments. For more information, contact: The NSS, 2813 Cave Ave., Huntsville, AL 35810.

American Cave Conservation Association (ACCA) The ACCA provides educational programs to increase understanding of pollution problems and their solutions in karstlands. Please contact David Foster, ACCA, P.O. Box 409, Horse Cave, KY 42749, for further information.

Cave Protection Options Available to Landowners

Caves can contain unique and fragile archaeological, historical, paleontological, biological, geological, hydrological and economic resources. Each of these aspects can require specialized management and protection techniques.

As a landowner in a karst region, you may know that your property could be an important piece of a much larger underground drainage puzzle. If your land has a cave entrance, you are the caretaker of a very special natural resource. Caves and the karst environment surrounding them are hydrologically connected (through groundwater and surface water) and may contain unusual or rare species of plants or animals. Protecting the cave and karst environment is the only way to ensure good groundwater quality in your area. Landowners have several voluntary options available to help conserve these fragile environments for future generations.

Registry Agreement

A landowner may have the opportunity to "register" a significant cave with a conservation organization. The registry agreement is not a legal document, but merely the owner's written acknowledgment of the significance of the cave, and an expression of willingness to protect the site. The landowner usually receives a commemorative plaque or photo for being a registry participant.

Management Lease or Agreement

Management agreements are legal contracts between landowners and conservation organizations that state that the cave and surrounding land will be managed in a certain manner for a specified period. The landowner may turn over management responsibilities to a conservation group but retains ownership of the entire property.

Conservation Easement

A conservation easement can be offered to a landowner by a conservation organization to limit certain uses of the property. Easements are very flexible and may be tailored to meet the individual circumstances. An easement is a permanent restriction on the use of the property and is recorded with the land records held by the county registrar of deeds or titles. By granting a conservation easement, a landowner is giving up unused property rights of some economic value, and may be able to claim a charitable contribution on federal tax returns and reduce capital gains, local real estate, and inheritance taxes.

Fee Acquisition

A landowner may have the option of selling a portion of his/her property to a conservation organization in the business of preserving, protecting, and owning preserves. There are many ways in which an owner can sell all or part of his/her property. Some of these options may allow a tax deduction; others may allow the owner life-long rights to remain a resident on the property.

Sharing the Costs

Government agencies and public and private organizations can help share the cost of some karst management or karst protection programs.

Transferable Development Rights

The concept that a property owner's "rights" to develop a site can be voluntarily given up or sold to a local jurisdiction is being tested in some rapidly growing parts of the country. The City of Virginia Beach, VA, for example, is seeking to protect valuable wetlands, farmland, and water quality by offering a financial solution to farmers challenged by rising land values, taxes, and urban sprawl. Contact your regional planning commission to find out if these types of programs are offered in your area.