Forest Service eases cave restrictions for convention
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – What would a convention of cavers be without caves?
The U.S. Forest Service granted special permission Friday for the National Speleological Society to visit 17 caves in the White River National Forest during its conference July 18-21 in Glenwood Springs.
The caves and old mines in the White River and other national forests throughout the five-state Rocky Mountain Region have been off limits since July to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome. The disease has killed more than 1 million bats in the eastern half of the U.S. in the last three years. It hasn’t been detected in Colorado yet.
The NSS sought an exemption from the closure during its convention. The organization submitted a long list of caves it wanted to visit. Forest Service staff worked with the organization to “whittle it down,” said Mike Kenealy, recreation special-uses coordinator for the White River.
The Forest Service will allow access only to caves where there is no evidence of bat use such as hibernation or maternity roosting, he said.
That will eliminate use of some of the most spectacular caves surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley. “Most of the long-chambered caves that cavers like to go in are also liked by bats,” Kenealy said.
Two popular caves that will remain off limits during the convention are Hubbard’s Cave and Groaning Cave, both outside Glenwood Springs, according to Kenealy.
Many of the caves that the NSS will be allowed to visit are smaller, shallower caves. The visits must be guided. The number of trips will be limited, as will the number of cavers on each trip.
The NSS website says trips will have a maximum of eight participants, including the trip leader. Local cavers will serve as leaders.
The Bureau of Land Management will decide early next week whether to grant a special-use permit for access to three caves on land it manages, spokesman David Boyd said. In addition, the BLM is considering enacting access restrictions such as those already in place on national forests in the Rocky Mountains. There is no BLM ban currently in place. However, large groups like the NSS must get a special use permit for access.
The spectacular caves at Glenwood Caverns, which are privately owned, will also be available to the cavers.
The Forest Service and NSS agreed to special procedures designed as a precaution against the possible spread of white nose syndrome. The NSS is telling members who come from states where the disease has been confirmed to leave their caving clothing and gear at home. Replacement gear and clothing will be available for loan or at a very low price at Glenwood Springs.
In addition, the clothing and gear used to visit the 17 caves in the White River requires decontamination afterward. Clothing and gear will be sprayed with a disinfectant and wiped down. NSS proposed decontamination; the Forest Service is requiring it. A decontamination station will also be established at the Glenwood Springs High School grounds, a headquarters for the event and where many participants will camp.
NSS has worked to educate its members about white nose syndrome, and it has donated funds to research efforts. The organization will hold a session on the disease on the Wednesday of its conference in Glenwood Springs.
Kenealy said it is important for cavers to decontaminate their clothing and gear even though bats aren’t thought to use the caves that participants will visit. It’s a precaution, he said, plus it is good to get cavers accustomed to the decontamination procedures.
“We’re really using this convention as an education tool,” he said.
Organizers were not available for comment Friday, but they said earlier this spring that the event could draw as many as 1,000 people to Glenwood Springs.
One organization, the Vermont-based Center for Biological Diversity, urged the Forest Service not to lift its ban for the NSS. Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate with the organization, said she understands the Forest Service decision but still has concerns.
The convention was going to take place regardless of whether the Forest Service would allow access to caves in the national forest, Matteson said. The cavers have access to caves on private land and BLM areas, so the Forest Service apparently didn’t feel a restriction on its lands would have much effect, she said. She credited the Forest Service with the conditions it approved on access.
Matteson was also generally complimentary of NSS education efforts and the precautions it is taking. Nevertheless, she would like to see cavers avoid caves until more is known about white nose syndrome.
“Is it worth the risk to go caving when you could be moving this fungus around unknowingly?” she asked.
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