By: Michael A. Schuett and Amanda Bentley*
*Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, and Graduate Student in Recreation, Park & Tourism Sciences, The Texas A&M University System
Cave tourism offers Texans many opportunities for recreation and education. A landowner who opens a cave to visitors enables them to enjoy unique natural areas. However, cave resources are irreplaceable and must be protected with consistent monitoring and care.
Caves and the karst landscapes where they occur are fragile resources that provide enormous value to our ecosystem: They filter our drinking water; provide habitat for specialized species; offer educational opportunities; provide space for recreation, exploration, and scientific study; and could hold secrets of medicinal advances for humans.
Landowners and land managers who contemplate opening their properties to cave tourism need to consider many factors, including the special characteristics of caves, the resources available to help them, the opportunities for working with recreationists and scientists to improve our knowledge and understanding of caves, and the importance of collaborating with caving organizations to protect cave ecosystems.
A cave is typically defined as a natural opening in the ground large enough for humans to enter, where the length or depth of the cavity is greater than the size of the entrance. Caves are formed in karst topography, which is a landscape where layers of bedrock such as limestone or dolomite have been dissolved by acidic waters over thousands of years.
A cave’s lack of natural light makes it a distinct ecosystem. Although light from the sun powers life above ground, life below ground depends on energy from other sources. These unusual conditions force cave inhabitants such as crickets and spiders to become highly specialized. Many species are found in only a single cave system.
Caves are prevalent throughout the United States and abundant in Texas, where 98 percent of the land is privately owned. If sliced in half through the bedrock, some landowners’ properties would look like Swiss cheese. Others own caves that house endangered biodiversity such as Texas Wild-rice, the Robber Baron Cave spider, and the Texas blind salamander.
The unique characteristics of caves also attract species of the Homo sapiens variety. Some caves have been commercially developed for the enjoyment of visitors who want to admire formations such as stalagmites and stalactites from the safety of stable paths with handrails. Visitors access these caves by paying for guided tours, which often are well-lit and follow a paved path. Known as show caves, these caves are developed to allow many people to move through them safely.
Each year, millions of visitors stroll through the cavernous rooms of Carlsbad, Mammoth, Wind and Jewel Cave National Parks. In addition to federally managed areas, state, local, and private entities maintain caves. Texas has several show caves, including the Caverns of Sonora, Natural Bridge Caverns, and Inner Space Cavern.
Other caves are kept wild and are less accessible. Wild caves have no paved paths to guide visitors, and the cave formations are not protected by guardrails.
Access to caves must be regulated because underground ecosystems are extremely fragile. One touch by a human hand transfers oils that damage the formation forever. In fact, humans significantly affect caves just by walking through them. Skin cells and lint from clothing easily shed onto cave formations and pile up over time; bacteria and mud are brought in on shoes; and carbon dioxide and ammonia gases are released through breathing.
A cave’s unique microclimate can be changed by body heat, lights, the installation of concrete, steel walkways, and supplemented ventilation. These changes can cause permanent and irreversible damage to the ecosystem, including the organisms living there.
People who enjoy crawling through rocks, mud, and bat guano deep inside wild caves are known as cavers. Cavers are members of a community of recreationists and scientists who systematically explore caves. In this two-fold process, cavers:
- Discover and explore caves and cave systems
- Document information about the caves, including written observations, photographs, cave survey measurements, cave entrance locations, and formation inventories.
Cavers enjoy access to caves on public and private land through their membership in a caving club, or grotto. Relationships between grottos, land managers, and land owners often span decades, and a good relationship based on trust is fundamental for both cave access and cave conservation.
Cavers tend to be good environmental stewards: It is in their best interest to protect the resource where they explore and collect data. They also tend to self-regulate visitation. This means that when a grotto obtains access to a cave, the trip leader reports and regulates the number of cavers entering the cave that day and their activities. Visitation data is vital information for properly managing the use of caves, and it is a useful tool that can indicate the need for management changes.
Resources for information and assistance
Several cave management resources are available to help Texas land managers and landowners who are curious or concerned about cave ecosystems on their property. These organizations work with landowners, schools, rescue groups, and underground resource agencies to preserve and manage caves. Several of these organizations not only manage caves through conservation easements, but they own caves as well, so membership numbers and cave trips are thoroughly recorded.
One source of data that can help landowners make land management decisions is the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment (NSRE). Conducted annually since 1982, the NSRE describes participation by Americans in outdoor recreation activities.
In 1995, 2001, and 2009, respondents were asked if they participated in caving. The survey results provide preliminary information about respondents who reported caving at least once in the past year (Table 1). However, it is unclear from this survey whether respondents visited show caves or wild caves on public or private land.
Public agencies, private organizations, and survey data can help with all aspects of cave management. Many nonprofit and land trust organizations are committed to the preservation, conservation, and scientific study of caves.
For more information on federally managed caves, contact:
- National Park Service www.nps.gov
- National Cave and Karst Research Institute www.nature.nps.gov/nckri/
- Texas Parks and Wildlife Department http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/
For information on privately managed caves, conservation easements, and grottos in Texas, contact:
- Texas Cave Conservancy www.texascaves.org
- Texas Cave Management Association www.tcmacaves.org
- Texas Speleological Association www.cavetexas.org
- Texas Speleological Survey www.utexas.edu/tmm/sponsored_sites/tss/
Information on bats, white nose syndrome, and other cave biodiversity is available from:
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service www.fws.gov
- Bat Conservation International www.batcon.org
- Edwards Aquifer www.edwardsaquifer.net/
For questions and issues to consider when evaluating a potential nature tourism/recreation enterprise on your property, see:
- Nature Tourism Program, Texas AgriLife Extension Service http://www.rpts.tamu.edu/tce/NT/
- Texas AgriLife Extension Service publication E-247, Nature Tourism: A Guidebook for Evaluating Enterprise Opportunities, which is available for download at https://agrilifebookstore.org/
Cooperating with other cave interests
Collaboration between cave ecosystems stakeholders has become imperative as new threats to cave biodiversity emerge. For example, a wildlife health crisis called white-nose syndrome is plaguing bats in the northeastern United States. Bat colonies, which use caves as habitat for roosting and hibernating, eat thousands of tons of insects every night throughout spring and summer. Bats also play important roles as pollinators and seed dispersers, and they serve as prey for snakes, hawks, and barn owls.
Northeastern bats usually hibernate through winter, but scientists believe a white fungus growing on the noses, ears, and wings of bats could be causing them to rouse more often from hibernation, perhaps to groom the fungus away. Waking up from hibernation can burn a lot of calories for a small bat. When bats get hungry, they fly out of their caves to find insects; however, no insects are available for them in winter.
Ultimately, more than 1 million bats have died since 2006 due to white-nose syndrome and subsequent starvation. If bat populations continue to decline, insect populations could increase dramatically. On May 20, 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation confirmed that the fungus has been identified in bats as far southwest as Oklahoma. As white-nose syndrome spreads southward, no one knows where the newly identified fungus will stop or how it will affect bats or caves in Texas.
Cave owners can work with scientists and caving organizations to document changes in cave dwellers and find ways to halt and prevent such threats to these underground ecosystems.
Cave tourism offers opportunities for recreation, education, and scientific study, but cave resources must be protected. As we continue to explore our vast, underground world, landowners and land managers need to know the resources that are available to them and to take steps to preserve fragile cave ecosystems. Public agencies, private organizations, and survey data can provide assistance to all aspects of cave management.
The Center for Socioeconomic Research & Education at Texas A&M University provided technical assistance for this publication.
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