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A Cave Owners Survival Guide

By Tim Kilby

Cave owners have various feelings about owning a cave; but realize it or not, they own one of nature's most exquisite and unique creations. The overwhelming beauty of the alien underground, a world that took eons to create, can be destroyed in a moment. Wild creatures that depend on caves for their continued existence are at our mercy. The respect that we landowners have for nature above ground is doubly necessary when irreplaceable resources are at stake. Considering this, I constantly reappraise my role as a cave owner to be a good citizen of nature. Though in a legal sense I am called landowner, trustee is a more apt title. I view myself as a custodian, responsible for protecting the cave now and preserving it for future generations. You probably share my love of the land, but maybe not my enthusiasm of cave ownership. After all, owning a cave can be trying and the issues can be confusing. Here are five steps that I believe will help you survive being a cave owner.

Step 1. Know your rights and responsibilities. As legal titleholder you have the right to quiet possession; that is, enjoyment of your land without hassles from others. You also have the right to use the cave yourself, allow others in, or close it if you so desire. There are legal responsibilities that you have as a landowner and certainly moral obligations if you know that there are hidden dangers. You also have responsibilities to not destroy or harm cave wildlife or pollute underground water supplies. Virginia's laws are written to protect caves and cave owners as well.

Step 2. Weigh the pros and cons of allowing others to use your cave. Sure, some visitors telephone at odd hours, park their cars where they shouldn't, or leave trash behind. But the majority of cave enthusiasts are responsible persons who respect landowners, their rights and wishes, and most importantly, the cave. Personally, I'm very tough on trespassers but friendly to responsible visitors who abide by the rules I set. If you can deal with a few "bad apples," consider allowing recreational cavers access to your cave. On the other hand, if trespassing is out of hand, fragile formations are in danger, or endangered species are being disturbed, close the cave temporarily or permanently. Gates are quite effective if built from a proper design. Blasting an entrance closed is not good because it closes the animals' entrance too.

Step 3. Support information gathering at your cave. If you are approached by a state agency, an environmental or conservation organization, or a recognized caving organization to conduct scientific studies, mapping, or exploration of your cave, grant them permission. Valuable information may be obtained on cave wildlife, geology, and hydrology of that area. Information may be kept confidential, at your request, and you give up none of your rights to control cave access. I recommended that you insist that data be shared with you and other qualified organizations, but not necessarily with the general public. Based on the data gathered, the researchers might suggest, or you might decide, to close the cave or keep it open to others. You can help any study by providing information on entrance locations, sinkholes, and bat sightings.

Step 4. Protect cave inhabitants and the environment. I don't believe any landowner would knowingly destroy the home of harmless wildlife or pollute the soil or underground water sources. Bats, salamanders, woodrats, crickets, and a lot of other critters call Virginia's caves their homes. Your ethical responsibility as a cave owner is to allow animals to complete their life cycle undisturbed and to keep underground water clean and pure. Untreated sewage, fertilizers and pesticides, farm animals near entrances, leaky fuel tanks, or trash dumps above caves may cause underground pollution. Even if you are some distance from an entrance you may still be polluting a cave if surface water containing contaminants drains quickly into the soil or into sinkholes.

Step 5. Seek help and advice when you need it. Managing a cave is a tough job. If you need advice or answers to questions, contact the Virginia Cave Board. They might put you in contact with another state agency, the Virginia Speleological Survey, the National Speleological Society, American Cave Conservation Association, Cave Conservancy of the Virginias, the Nature Conservancy, or another group that can advise or help with your particular problem. Qualified and experienced volunteers are available to help you with exploration, mapping, gate design and construction, cleanup, and management assistance.Making decisions about your cave can be agonizing, I know. Every element of a management plan involves an analysis of the cost versus the benefits. In my case, I consulted lawyers, insurance agents, scientist, conservationists, and cavers before deciding to open the cave to responsible persons. The last three years have shown a decrease in trespassing, a decrease in trash and destruction, an increase in wildlife populations, and new respect for a wonderful cave. You'll find concerned cave enthusiasts ready to help you become a good cave trustee and not only survive but enjoy being a cave owner.

Tim Kilby is owner of New River Cave in Giles County, Virginia.

(Reprinted from Cave Owner's Newsletter, No. 10, March 1993)