How I spent my Saturday: Removing graffiti in a cave


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Yesterday was another of my many cave adventures, but different than most. Instead of exploring and mapping newly discovered or out-of-the-way remote cave passages, I participated in a project of the Central Arizona Grotto (a chapter of the National Speleological Society and located in Phoenix) to remove years of graffiti from Peppersauce Cave. You can see pictures of yesterday’s effort here, published by the Arizona Star.

You won’t see any pictures of me. The younger cavers were far more photogenic.

Peppersauce has become what cavers call a “sacrificial cave.” It is open and ungated, relatively easy to traverse, and very well known throughout the state. Thus, many inexperienced people go there to see it, most of whom know little about caving, the ethics of protecting them, or the proper techniques for caving safely. Yesterday, while we were working to either sand-blast, chemically remove, or grind away old spray-paint (some of which was sadly obscene), I must have seen between 150 to 200 people go by. At least two thirds of them were not wearing helmets. Many clearly had never been in a cave before. Some were not wearing headlamps, carrying flashlights instead (which makes climbing harder because you don’t have use of both hands and can easily lose your light). A few even came in with no lights, depending instead on the lights their companions carried.

Because of this heavy traffic, Peppersauce has been badly trashed. On visits by experienced cavers we routinely carry out bags of trash, only to find that trash reappearing, sometime in mere hours. The walls of the cave had been covered with graffiti, some many layers deep.

Ray Keeler of Central Arizona Grotto (CAG) has organized several projects in the past to remove this graffitti over the past two decades. The effort he is leading this year is the third, and has the help of cavers from grottos throughout the state. This was the fourth clean-up weekend, and the first that I was able to attend (having missed the first three due to scheduling conflicts).

I’ve done similar things before, but never on this scale. It was quite educational using the solvent to remove some graffiti, but unfortunately many types of paint are completely resistant to removal by either sand-blasting or solvent. After awhile I got discouraged doing solvent work. Too often nothing got removed. In the afternoon I switched to our last technique, grinding, and was far more gratified with the results. The grinder, which we do not use on formations, removes only the slightest layer of material, and thus does little damage. It however is very effective in removing all paint, no matter how resistant.

The cave is now about two thirds cleaned. We are racing to finish the rest before the summer, because a typically insane reason forced upon us by the government. You see, according to a law passed by Congress, graffiti that is more than fifty years old is considered historical, and cannot be removed without a great deal of paperwork and complex bureaucracy. Spray paint was invented in the late 1960s (about fifty years ago), and so some of this ugly graffiti, no matter how obscene, is going to be protected by our government beginning later this year. Our goal is to get it removed beforehand, so that the cave can be returned to a more natural state, for future visitors to experience.

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19 comments

  • MarcusZ1967

    Bob,

    WOW! I must thank you for your efforts and all of the team you had working with you!!!

    Thank you!

    Marcus

    P.S.
    reCAPTCHA this time…..

    Google needs human notice of the vision of their cameras…..

  • Gary M.

    Bravo and big handshake for these efforts.

    Mike Christy captured some excellent images. Talented photographer.

  • Willi

    How’s the gummint going to enforce a ban on removing graffiti older than 50 years? Idiots!!!

  • I wondered why spray graffiti didn’t appear in photos until the early 70’s. Now I know. It wasn’t because people had more sense; the idiots didn’t have an easy method of defacement.

    A warm Thank You! to all who participate in this effort.

  • born01930

    40,000 years ago Thag and Gronk tagged their first cavern…

  • wayne

    What is the temperature & humidity, in this cave?

    My go-to-guy for paint-stripper, informs me you might need to double the time required for the solvents to work properly below 70 degrees, but it’s apparently not a linear relationship from 70 degrees downward.
    –high humidity however is apparently good for stripping-paint with solvents, but also lengthens the process time.

    -tangentially– the “Architect of the House of Reps,” buys my friend’s paint-stripper by the 55 gallon barrel (every Quarter). They endlessly refinish all that fine-wood in the chamber, on a set schedule.

  • Wayne: Your information might explain why some paint would not come off. The temperature is probably in the 60s, and for some graffiti we probably did not wait long enough. In general we waited twenty to thirty minutes, which at the temperatures there might have been too short.

  • wayne

    For my guys specific product (predominately acetone + methanol + toluene) carried in a wax/paraffin type ‘slurry,’ almost a gel consistency.

    -“2 minutes will handle 2 coats of varnish, shellac, or lacquer.
    -10-15 minutes will effectively strip 3-5 coats of a latex based paint.
    -Enamel, lead-based paint, and single-component epoxy, will require 15-60 minutes”
    (based on 70 degrees and 50% relative humidity.)

    -He recommends at least 1/4 inch application of (his) product and a lengthened “dwell time.”

    (and avoid breathing any ‘paint-stripper’ containing solvents, while it evaporates. The toluene, is what the Feds took out (banned) of “airplane-glue,” in the mid 70’s. Toluene (and acetone) gets you ‘high,’ but it’s a complete neurotoxic-effect and not a psychoactive effect. The closer you are to death, the more you hallucinate.)

  • Wayne B (Rain)

    I wonder if there is some way to put in trash cans and get them emptied every day.

  • Ray Keeler

    Bob, your last paragraph is incorrectly paraphrasing what I said. It is misleading and inaccurate. The editorial spin words also inflame and misrepresent the goals of the Peppersauce Project. The graffiti removal portion of the project is maybe half done and definitely not two thirds done. I did not say “racing to finish”, “typically insane”, nor is the project “because of” the 50 year timeframe. And as far as I know the statement “and so some of this ugly graffiti, no matter how obscene, is going to be protected by our government beginning later this year.” is not being enforced anywhere in the U.S. We do NOT want to make an issue where there currently is none.
    Thank you,
    Ray Keeler
    Central Arizona Grotto President
    rckeeler@cox.net

  • wayne

    Mr. Keeler– personally, I attribute all editorial commentary contained in this post, to Mr. Z. (I would however, be impressed, if your organization held those same economic/political belief’s and editorial flair.)

    We have so many laws on the books, local/state/federal, some researchers have speculated “everyone in the Country commits at least 3 felonies a day.”

    Whether any of the gazillions of those laws are enforced, is of no consequence. The fact they could be arbitrarily and selectively enforced at the whim of un-elected functionary’s, is.

    Q:
    -Who, or what entity, owns the physical land, where this cave is located?
    -What exactly are, the “goals of the peppersauce project,” and is any tax money involved in any way, shape, or in-kind manner? (not accusing…just askin’. If it’s a “non-profit,” we-are-all subsidizing it, make no mistake whatsoever.)

  • Ray Keeler: As always, I fully support your project, and look forward to participating during future work weekends. As I noted to you by email, however, you had made it very clear that we were under a deadline this summer. And you also made it clear that once the 50 year time period arrived, it was going to be more difficult to proceed with some of the graffiti removal. That I decided to express my opinion bluntly about these government rules that are placing us in this absurd situation remains my opinion, not yours.

    My comments also will not cause you an issue with the Forest Service. If anything, it will make them tread more lightly, as the bad press they will surely get if they interfere with your good work will be something they will wish to avoid.

    Finally, you might say that the government is yet not doing dumb things on this issue, and you might very well be right. My life experience, however, makes me very confident that they eventually will do dumb things, unless we hold their feet to the fire. For example, the next time we are hanging around the campfire I will gladly tell you the absurd attempt the Forest Service made to try to keep my project for surveying a cave one weekend. Their effort was so ludicrous they themselves quickly realized it and backed down, especially when I refused to be bullied by them. Similarly, we could talk about the federal government’s draconian cave closure policies, policies so disconnected from reality that the NSS and BCI both recently felt compelled to call them on it [pdf].

  • Ray Keeler

    Hi Wayne, the cave is on Coronado National Forest land in Arizona. The project is entirely funded by non-government donations, like caving clubs and individuals. Yes, I mean there are no federal, state or local municipalities contributing to the project. The goals of the project are to protect and clean the cave of graffiti, and educate visitors on being respectful while on public lands … thus the kiosk outside the cave. Would you like to help on the next project weekend and see the cave? Send me an email.

    Bob, there is no “deadline this summer”. I would like to see the entire cave cleaned of graffiti and am willing to coordinate efforts to do this. We were unsuccessful in finishing removing graffiti in the back of the cave on previous attempts. I would prefer to not have this graffiti removal project to just keep going and going and going. There are better things to do in life.
    … one more correction for you in your last post. In your last paragraph you wrote “…that the NSS and BCI both …“ Merlin Tuttle, founder of BCI, is no longer with BCI. BCI is not included in the letter. Dr. Tuttle sold the company. You can confirm this by going to the signature block on the link.
    Thank you,
    Ray

  • Ray Keeler: Ah, I stand corrected. I saw Tuttle’s name, and assumed BCI, since he was associated with it for years and made it what it is. No matter, it does not change my point about the government’s ability to do dumb things.

    You say now there is no deadline this summer, but that is not the impression you gave on Saturday at the campsite. You made it a point to emphasis finishing in August, not because you wanted to get it done (which by the way is a great reason) but because of your concern about the Antiquities Act and the possibility that some graffiti might be considered historical by next year. That is what I heard, and I know I am not the only one who heard it. I have only been reporting that fact.

  • wayne

    Ray Keeler:
    Thanks for the information. Unfortunately, I’m in Michigan and unable to assist. (I am pleased your organization isn’t involved in any phony ‘public-private partnerships.’)
    My experience with caves is confined to Mammoth Cave and assorted private roadside tourist-trap caves.
    [ We do however have a lot of State and National Forest Land in Michigan, way too many acres for my liking, which I find incredibly ironic, given Michigan was clear-cut during our lumber era and practically every tree alive in Michigan didn’t exist before the CCC replanted them in the 1930’s.]

    The problem with ‘your’ Cave– “everybody owns it, so subsequently nobody owns it.”

  • Ray Keeler

    Hi Bob and Wayne, the American Antiquities Act of 1906 https://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/anti1906.htm is quite short, clear, and an interesting read. Section 4 says “That the Secretaries of the Departments aforesaid shall make and publish from time to time uniform rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this Act.”

    The Department of Agriculture (includes the Forest Service and thus management for Peppersause Cave) interpreted “antiquities” as 50 years old and older. The rules for implementing the law are contained in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFRs). Thus, there is a moving 50 year time line as to what is considered an “antiquity”. As I understand it, the Forest Service followed the National Park Service’s lead on the 50 year time period for consistency.

    Personally, I feel 50 years is too short of a timeframe, and that 100 years would be a much better time period for management/preservation purposes. The mechanism to do this would be to change the corresponding USFS CFR rules, I expect this would save the forest money (employee time needed to complete tasks). The pushback to the change would be from areas that are currently 50-100 years old, currently covered and the impact if these were removed from protection.
    Thank you,
    Ray Keeler
    rckeeler@cox.net

  • wayne

    Ray–
    thanks. interesting stuff.! (personally, I trend toward eliminating ‘regulations,’ rather than tweaking them, but that boat sailed long before I was born, so I guess you have to work within the System…)

    pivoting–
    Most of our ‘cave-geology’ here in Michigan, is in the Upper Peninsula, but not exclusively, and nothing to the extent of ‘out-west.’

    This is very interesting (and I was not aware of it) so I will pass it along:
    “The Michigan Karst Conservancy”
    Fiborn Karst Preserve
    http://caves.org/conservancy/mkc/preserve_fiborn.html

    “The 480-acre preserve, purchased by the MKC in 1987, was the site of a limestone quarry from 1905 to 1936 which supplied high-calcium limestone to Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.”
    “The limestone outcrops throughout the preserve are part of the Niagara Escarpment, a band of resistant rocks (mostly Silurian dolomite) ringing Michigan’s lower peninsula from the hills of Wisconsin’s Dorr Peninsula through Michigan’s upper peninsula to Ontario’s Niagara Falls and beyond. The band was pushed up like the sides of a bowl as sediment and new rock collected in the Michigan Basin, forming the state’s lower peninsula.”
    The conservancy manages the preserve as a natural area, open to the public under guidelines meant to prevent damage to natural features, vandalism and unsupervised, unsafe cave exploration. MKC volunteers gather once a month from May through October to perform maintenance and management work such as clearing and mowing trails, posting or repairing signs and occasionally cleaning graffiti in the quarry railroad house.”

    “A major feature of the preserve is Hendrie River Water Cave, Michigan’s longest known cave, with about 1,500 feet of mostly high, narrow passage with a stream running along the floor. As caves go, HRWC appears to be quite young, carved in the past 7,000-10,000 years since the last glaciers in the area melted. The cave “ends” and the stream sumps in a circular passage known as the Goop Loop. The stream resurges in a spring about a mile away. Lower passages of the cave are prone to flood after heavy rain.”

    (and I know Mr. Z., got himself caught in a flooding cave.)

  • Wayne: You can read about my in-cave flood experience here.

  • wayne

    tangentially (cuz’ that’s what I do)

    “The Legend of the Sleeping Bear”
    Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
    https://youtu.be/TFz_qvakGWY

    “Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a United States National Lakeshore located along the northwest coast of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan in Leelanau and Benzie counties near Empire, Michigan. The park covers a 35-mile-long stretch of Lake Michigan’s eastern coastline, as well as North and South Manitou islands.”

    and concurrently for the astronomy folks:
    “2018 Star Party calendar announced at Sleeping Bear Dunes”
    https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2018/04/10/sleeping-bear-dunes-unveils-2018-star-party-calendar-first-event-saturday/499682002/

    “Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is hosting monthly stargazing parties now through October, conducted by members of the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society. Events are free but an entrance-pass is required.”

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