Skip to Content
NATURAL HERITAGE

Ten Questions About Caves and the
Virginia Cave Board

1. How do caves form?
Most caves in Virginia were formed by a solution process, the dissolving a way of limestone rock by a weak acid carried in groundwater. Limestone, being composed of calcium carbonate, is slowly dissolved away by the solutional effect of carbonic acid. Limestone was formed from sediments deposited on the floors of shallow seas millions of years ago. The formation of caves does not actually begin until the limestone is exposed to natural elements at the surface. The formations (called speleothems) found in some caves have resulted from water seeping through limestone, dissolving calcium carbonate, and then leaving behind deposits of mineral calcite and aragonite as it passes into cave rooms and passages.

2. How many caves are there in Virginia?
Over 4000. Virginia is one of only six states in the United States with over 2,000 known caves. Many are described in H. H. Douglas, Caves of Virginia and J. R. Holsinger, Descriptions of Virginia Caves. Data are on file with the Virginia Speleological Survey, affiliated with the National Speleological Society (NSS).

3. Do caves have economic value?
Several of Virginia's caves are renowned for their beauty and are tourist attractions, bringing thousands of visitors into the state annually. To have a wild cave on one's property, however, probably does not increase its value and may even constitute a nuisance to the owner, although there are instances where the owner may use the cave as a water source.

4. Is there any historical significance to caves?
Professional archeologists have only begun to investigate the implications of materials discovered in Virginia's rock shelters and caves, where some evidence of prehistoric habitation has been uncovered. Indian burial caves can yield important demographic information. In most recent history, Thomas Jefferson visited and described one of Virginia's caves and George Washington and James Madison left other signatures in Madison Saltpetre Cave. Up until the close of the Civil War, caves in the Commonwealth were extensively mined for saltpetre (used in the manufacture of gunpowder).

5. Do caves have an educational value?
With today's emphasis upon wilderness experience to develop self reliance and appreciation of nature, there have been attempts to include caves as part of such programs. However, this is not an activity to be undertaken without a person in charge skilled both in caving techniques and safety, as well as concern for the conservation of caves, which can easily be damaged. Speleothems of great beauty can be broken in a careless moment, and it may be years before others will grow to replace them. A muddy handprint or footprint can permanently mar an otherwise pristine mineral formation.For the serious scientist, opportunities for research in the field of speleology (the science of caves) exist. Bones and artifacts found in caves are very fragile. The matter in which they are deposited and preserved is as important scientifically as the objects themselves. Much of the scientific value of these deposits is lost when they are disturbed by anyone but a trained professional.

6. Are caves hazardous?
The hazards in cave exploration are real but exist primarily for the untrained or careless. Training for interested novices is available throughout the Commonwealth through organized caving groups affiliated with the National Speleological Society. The NSS sponsors a National Cave Rescue Commission, and emergency telephone numbers are available to mobilize cavers in case of a mishap. Cavers welcome the opportunity to explain caving to other groups who may be involved in rescue programs, working toward cooperation when the need arises.

7. Does Virginia have a law to protect its caves?
The Virginia Cave Protection Act was passed in 1979 to help preserve our cave resources for future generations to enjoy. Please help! If you are a caver, leave each cave as you found it. If you are a cave owner, let us know of problems you may encounter. It is our responsibility to protect and preserve these unique, non-renewable, natural resources for future generations to experience. Caves are very sensitive environments. The animals found in caves can easily be disturbed by man. Bats aroused during their winter hibernation often do not survive the winter months. Disturbance during the spring and summer months while bats are raising their young can cause the loss of young bats. Water pollution may poison streams, thereby killing many other organisms.Help enforce the law by reporting any and all persons in violation of the law to the cave owner or the nearest law enforcement authority. In most states as Virginia, it is illegal to...

  • Write or mark on walls,
  • Break or remove mineral formations,
  • Sell or transport to other states for sale, mineral deposits and/or speleothems,
  • Disturb or collect cave organisms, including bats,
  • Remove or disturb prehistoric artifacts or bones,
  • Litter or dispose of trash or refuge, or
  • Dump spent calcium carbide.

    Code of Virginia 10-150.11 et seq.

8. What is the purpose of the Virginia Cave Board?
The Board was established by the 1979 General Assembly and may perform the following functions:

  • Serve as an advisory board to other state agencies on matters related to caves and karst,Inventory of publicly owned caves,
  • Provide cave management expertise and service to other state agencies as requested,Identify significant caves in Virginia,
  • Report on ways to assist local authorities in obtaining the assistance of experienced cavers in cave rescue situations construction,
  • Clarify laws relative to cave ownership,
  • Suggest ways for enforcing the Cave Protection Act effectively,Study the possibility of a state cave recreation plan, and
  • Study how cave data might be stored through electronic data processing so as to be readily available to state agencies with a need for such information.

9. Who Are the Members of the Cave Board?
The Virginia Cave Board is composed of twelve voting members including the Director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and eleven citizens of Virginia appointed by the Governor. Appointed members are unpaid volunteers who serve four-year staggered terms. Past Board members have included a commercial cave owner, archaeologist, biologist, lawyer, and geologist. Because many of them are active members of the National Speleological Society, they are able to call upon the expertise and resources of the entire Society (with over 8,000 members) to help carry out the purposes of the Board. All the Board members are dedicated to the conservation of Virginia's many caves, located primarily west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

10. How can the Virginia Cave Board serve other state agencies?
We want to help with projects which impact caves or karst areas. These could be water pollution problems involving underground drainage, educational units in science, wilderness experience programs, emergency rescue service, protection of endangered or rare species, highway construction, quarry development, location of oil and gas drilling and hazardous dump sites, etc. Slide shows and/or talks can be provided on request to illustrate the uniqueness of the cave environment. Caves and karst information request should the coordinated through the Department of Conservation's Division of Natural Heritage. The Virginia Cave Board works closely with this department to protect caves through the tools of registry, conservation easements, acquisition as natural areas, and environmental assessments. If you become aware of problems or have questions concerning caves or karst areas, please contact: the Virginia Cave Board.

(Reprinted from DCR brochure.)