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Closing caves for the convenience and power of the government

A variety of federal government agencies are moving aggressively to shut down human access to all American caves, including those on private property. Key quote:

In Wisconsin, where white nose syndrome has not yet appeared, wildlife managers want to get a jump on the disease by declaring G. destructans [the fungus associated with the syndrome] an invasive species, and declaring four species of bats threatened. Those designations would give wildlife agencies access to new sources of funds. They would also “give police power to the agencies to go onto private land to prevent damage to these newly named threatened species,” said [Peter] Youngbaer, [white nose syndrome liaison for the National Speleological Society]. “We fear that private landowners will be fearful of allowing even inadvertent access to caves, and thus move to seal caves shut. They’ll be causing more damage to the bats that they’re ostensibly trying to protect.” [emphasis mine]

As a caver, I not only have a strong personal interest in this story, I know a lot about bats and caves from personal experience. As a science writer who has also written about white nose syndrome for Science, I am also very familiar with the present state of the science. Based on this background, I find the actions of these government officials unconscionable. As one commenter to this article very correctly noted:

“There is currently *no* evidence that humans have spread this disease, but mountains of evidence for bat-to-bat transmission. The possibility does exist that humans *could* spread it, but even at its worst a human vector would be quite statistically insignificant in comparison to the bat-to-bat transmission.

In other words, closing all caves to human access can accomplish no good, and a great deal of harm. Yet, this is exactly what these government officials and environmental bureaucrats wish to do.

Back in March 2008, soon after white nose syndrome was discovered, I wrote the following:

I am beginning to believe strongly that the situation has worrisome political overtones linked to the unstated desire of some people to limit access to caves. . . . Some people are distorting the situation for their own purposes, either consciously or unconsciously. . . . Some of those people might have an agenda (closing caves to cavers) that is entirely irrelevant to the issue of white nose.

The article above only serves to confirm my opinions from 2008. The government officials who are demanding the indiscriminate closure of caves and the unfettered control over caves on private property are not really interested in protecting or saving the bats. In fact, their actions might actually do great harm to the bats, as the closures, the regulatory restrictions, and the threat to private property will antagonize both cavers and landowners, thus guaranteeing their unwillingness to cooperate with scientists.

So what do these government officials want? As far as I can tell, what they really want is power. And they are using white nose syndrome as a hammer to gain it.

Sadly, I fear that they are going to succeed. Today’s environmental laws are rigged to their advantage. The press is generally on their side. And the opposition to this power grab is diffuse and weak.

Once again, we see the death of freedom. And it dies, not by a single devastating blow, but by the death of a thousand cuts.

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  • Micheal McEachern

    Letter to USFS region 1 about closing all caves

    September 21, 2010

    Leslie Weldon, Regional Forester
    USFS Northern Region
    Federal Building
    200 East Broadway
    P.O. Box 7669
    Missoula, Montana 59807-7669

    Dear Ms Weldon:

    The misguided closure of all caves in the USFS Rocky Mountain Region, and ignoring the practical management advice from the National Speleological Society (NSS), has increased the likelihood of the early spread of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) in the western US. Hopefully that same mistake will not be made again in the Northern Region.

    WNS is a serious threat to bats in North America and is spreading from the eastern US into the West. It is estimated that more than a million bats have been killed by the infection. While the primary means of infection is “bat to bat”, it is possible for the fungus associated with the disease to be carried by humans from one cave to another. By not using clothing and equipment from WNS infected areas of the country in areas not yet effected by WNS, transmission of the fungus by humans can be prevented. In WNS effected areas decontamination procedures have been developed for cleaning clothing and equipment, but it is best not to use the same gear in another cave. WNS will continue to spread by its primary means from “bat to bat” until the infection runs it’s course. At this time, the most western occurrence of the fungus is from a single bat in Oklahoma.

    The NSS has promoted the study, exploration, and preservation of caves, their natural contents and the landscapes in which they form for 70 years. Its members are the most knowledgeable source of information about caves in the US. The NSS has been at the forefront of the WNS crises since the beginning.

    WNS also provides an opening for some environmental groups to expand their agendas. By threatening law suits they can use WNS to push Federal Agencies to broaden their reach through changes in administrative rules. In taking the position advocated in the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petition, the Forest Service has aligned itself with the extreme end of the the environmental movement. The CBD petition, in addition to advocating the closure of all caves and mines “suspected of harboring bats”, also advocates Federal take over of caves on private property and the closure of commercial caves. The CBD petition seeks to greatly expand the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and other legislation through administrative rulings. For example, in this petition the CBD pushes the idea that a private land owner who visits a cave on his own property and then visits a second cave also on his own property could be guilty of a crime.

    The NSS is a small group with only 12,000 members which makes it an easy target for a group with over 250,000 members. If the cavers can be pushed aside, new rules can be used as a precedent for dealing with other “problem” outdoor groups like horsemen spreading knapweed or boaters spreading zebra mussel.

    Since almost all of the caves in the mountain West are on public lands, closing all caves effectively outlaws cave exploration. What effect will closing all caves have?

    The earliest prehistoric evidence of religion comes from caves. One Native American myth is that the buffaloes came out of a cave in the north. Some Montana Indians still leave offerings in caves today.
    While most people do not care for visiting wild caves, many people have toured commercial caves and have been amazed by the spectacular underground landscapes. For some cavers visiting a cave is a profound spiritual experience much like attending church. It is not surprising that the largest room in Lewis and Clark Caverns is named the Cathedral Room. Imagine how you would feel if the government told you that if you attend a church you would be arrested and fined.

    For some cavers it is the challenge of exploration, a quest to place the first foot print where man has never gone, to go further or deeper. How do you tell an explorer, who after years of difficult expeditions, that it is against the law to return and descend the virgin pit that stopped the last expedition?

    Caves can be a pathway to knowledge. Speleology is blending of scientific fields focusing on caves within the broader landscape. Biology, geology, chemistry, paleontology, archeology and cartography are all important elements in understanding caves. They are excellent laboratories for teaching science, conservation and resource management. This has been wonderful demonstrated by the Big Fork High School’s Cave Club which was awarded the President’s Environmental Youth Award this January. How will these kids feel if they are told they are no longer allowed to visit caves?

    Closing caves that do not have any bats to protect bats defies common sense. There is a mountain with caves in the Bob Marshal Wilderness that has been studied by cavers since 1973. No bats have ever been observed there. No bat droppings have been observed. No ceiling stains indicating bats roosting have been recorded. No bat bones showing use of the caves by bats in the past have been found. Caver explorers visiting the area in July have had to dig snow from the entrances to enter the caves. Is WNS a good reason to close these caves?

    Managing resources by indiscriminately closing them, and telling the citizens that use them they are criminals who will be arrested and fined, erodes public confidence in government. There is already a great deal of distrust of the Federal Government in Montana and the mountain West. Closing all caves is an impossible plan which alienates the very people whose cooperation is required to effectively manage the WNS crises.

    Michael McEachern

    President, Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto
    Fellow, National Speleological Society
    President, Alpine Karst Foundation

  • Dan

    I have been an avid caver for over 3 decades and even a founder of a Western NSS chapter now I work for BLM and have seen this move to close caves firsthand. Some caves have been closed that have NO bats in them and serve NO purpose to close except to keep people out and the local NSS chapter have not even been put into the loop on such closures an example of this is the Sawyers Ice Caves near Santiam Pass in Oregon. Decades ago there was a sign and parking lot there to visit Sawyers Ice Caves then the sign and parking lot disappeared now the cave is gated. The goverment is subcontracting for welders thoughout the nation to build gates to keep everyone out of caves and mines, the reason? Danger to ourselves. In another words the very caves that I found and surveyed in the 80’s I cannot visit today, oh, yes, and I’m still alive to tell about it. Another example is Post Off__e cave in Northern California, the last time the cave was checked for bats (at the main entrance) the count was 2 in a 1.5 mile cave, I myself have ran into more then 2 bats in this cave and they didn’t account for the back (secret) entrance which is where most bats use, needless to say the front entrance was gated with reasons of both bats and safety concerns. When I started to ask around about this cave a few years ago, as I just moved back to the West, I meintioned the “secret” entrance on the web and got a quick response from the NSS telling me if I continue to talk of this I will not be allowed to be a member, hmmm, I dropped the subject, however the “secret” entrance was gated this year. Now there is a “secret” society of cavers who go out and find caves get the GPS coords and keep it to themselves for fear of them being closed, the problem for avid cavers is finding such a group because they do not want their finds published, or calls from the NSS, which I really have no respect for anymore.

  • Lyn

    Power issues become paramount when Governments becomes unstable or when extreme measures become a probability instead of a possibility. If, at any point, the US Gov decides to enact martial law of any kind in our country, then keeping a tight rein on the populace will be top on the list of priorities. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, just very analytical. When I mentioned the possibly of an agenda other than the benign concern over our little winged brothers to the caving community a couple of years ago, 100% scoffed at that rather ridiculous idea. It’s refreshing to know that I was not the only one considering some of the darker possibilities involved. At this point, giving out previously unknown cave locations to any Gov or Conservation personnel would be foolish and irresponsible of any CAVER. Currently, to be a caver in most parts of the country is to be considered criminal, this I find outrageous and obscene. If caver’s thoughts have been similar throughout the country, then the many thousands of locations that have been provided by us to the various Gov agencies through the last century and the beginning of this one, is just the tip of the iceberg. In my county alone, I know of 10 caves to every 1 listed on any record. That is a lot of caves. In percentage and knowledge, we technically own underground America. (Not in the sense of title in hand, lol)…
    We know it intimately, not from afar. We care because it is our world, a place that none dare follow that don’t have the spirit of adventure or the thirst for the unknown. If the Gov does not have that knowledge
    nor the manpower with the fortitude to cave, then of course they are going to close access.
    This is a common sense issue.
    I’m not sure if you will post this but if you do, I just want to encourage our brothers and sisters across the nation to hold fast. Let’s see what pops up before divulging all of our surveys and gps coordinates to the ruling bodies.

    Cave Softly

  • It’s nice to find a good blog post. I enjoy lots of the articles on your website.

  • Tracy

    From my understanding, the small hidden caves my children and I like to explore are now gated off and is now illegal? We were just at Sawyer’s less than six months ago. My daughter is doing an Oregon history project on the cave. I can’t imagine what a gate would look like around the cave. We will travel there and we will get in…also we haven’t had much success finding the history of the cave and it’s discovery..years ago the sign there gave such information. Can anyone help us to make this project a great one?
    Thank you

  • Debby

    The so called “government” must be destroyed, they are all gonna die

  • Hi-

    Thanks for letting me know about the Sawyers ice caves. I went there as a boy, and had a great time. Oh, I’m still alive, some 45 years later. I was going to take my children there about five years ago and couldn’t find them any more. I thought maybe I was remembering incorrectly.

    At least I’m not crazy. OK, not about this anyway.

    Thanks again,


  • Morris Coville

    Well, it’s not just the cavers who are fighting the ever spreading tyranny of government. Check out what is going on with even an obscure hobby called remote controlled model airplanes. The FAA is about to let down new laws governing UAV’s and it will effect everyone who wants to simply step out into an open field and fly a model airplane.

    Had not the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) stepped in on this the government would have ended up wiping out the hobby before anyone could protest. In fact, the fed might succeed anyway. They can’t leave anything alone, they must achieve complete control over everything.

    We all need to wake up and start comparing notes in every facet of our lives before it’s to late to put a stop to this madness.

  • Morris,

    Can you provide me some links to stories about these FAA model plane regulations? I would very much like to post about it.

  • Yvonne

    Thanks for the info. I had a friend show me Sawyer Ice caves in the early 90’s. I don’t make it out east very often, but I noticed the parking had been removed as well as the signs, quite a few years ago. It’s a sad thing that it has been removed from the public to visit. I was really looking forward to now sharing those caves with my kids. Guess I’m out of luck.

  • Craig

    Sawyer’s Ice Cave had been turned into a trash dump by the subhumans that go there. People are feral when they get out and chop down trees just so they can say they did so, same with Sawyer’s as it was loaded with broken beer bottles, beer cans, old dirty diapers, tree limbs, etc. PEOPLE turned it into a trash dump. I first visited Sawyer’s back in 1966 when I got my driver’s license. I lived in Albany. At that time, there was a very small sign with just the name and it was pristine. Freezing cold in the heat of July.
    If you know where it is, please keep the secret to those who will appreciate it, not trash it.

  • Ronald Kendrick

    I live in North Alabama. We have limestone caves in the area and on our property. A few years back (prior to 2008) my father (now deceased) was approached by ‘government officials’ who told him he did not own the caves, they belong to the government. Recently they showed up at our homestead and asked my mother if anyone had been in the caves, She said that I had mapped them out years ago and gave them my name. She states they also said the government owned all caves and might possible use them for emergency storage in case of ‘dire situations’. Should I be concerned? My mother said they left cards and info which I will see and verify tomorrow. Can this be true that they actually ‘own’ the caves or are they just supposed to protect them and the few bats within? This all sounds very fishy and with the current administration it’s hard to trust or believe anything that is said. Please email any further info or updates you may have. Thank you.

  • Ronald Kendrick: Those “government officials” are liars. They have no right to enter any of your property without your permission. Period. Read the fifth amendment of the Bill or Rights. If you refuse them access the only option they have is to initiate eminent domain proceedings. Even there, they must pay you just compensation.

    Why have so many Americans forgotten their basic rights? I am positive your father knew them, and told these “officials” to go to hell.

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