National caving group seeks exemption from restrictions
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Between 900 and 1,500 cavers converging on the Roaring Fork Valley for a national convention in July might have limited underground access because of a disease that is decimating bats in the eastern half of the U.S.
The National Speleological Society (NSS) will hold its annual convention and 70th anniversary celebration in Glenwood Springs July 18-22. The organization is seeking an exemption from a temporary closure of caves and abandoned mines put in place last July by the five-state Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service. The closure includes the White River National Forest, which surrounds Aspen and includes a large part of western Colorado.
The Forest Service said the temporary closure was needed while more research is performed into the spread of White Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed an estimated 1 million bats since it was first detected in New York State in 2006. The epidemic has raced through bat colonies in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. It “leap-frogged” into Missouri and western Oklahoma last year, leaving it just a few hundred miles from Colorado’s forests.
The spread of the disease isn’t well understood yet. The Forest Service ban is a precaution against cavers spreading it through their clothing or equipment.
The closure order allows exemptions “where special permittees can control access in and out of the caves.”
Dave Lester, co-chairman of the NSS convention, said the organization is prepared to take numerous precautions to make sure none of its members can be considered a cause for the possible spread of the disease.
“Our goal is to protect the bats as much as can be done,” he said, noting that cavers are “incredibly environmentally oriented.” Many cavers revere bats as part of the underground environment, he said.
NSS’s precautions include organizing tours in caves that aren’t regular habitat for bat colonies. Forest Service documents indicate NSS wants to tour Fulford Cave southeast of Eagle, an unspecified cave in the Coffee Pot area of the Flattops and an unspecified cave near Lime Park in the Upper Fryingpan Valley.
Cavers who attend the convention will be asked to leave their own gear at home. “We will provide loaner gear,” Lester said.
The clothing and equipment will be decontaminated before and after visiting caves using procedures approved by wildlife officials.
NSS is willing to take those precautions even those scientific research is starting to establish that human activity probably doesn’t play a role in the spread of White Nose Syndrome, Lester said. The disease has affected migrating bat species that live in extremely close proximity to one another. He believes research will show the epidemic is likely being spread by bats getting exposed at one colony and bringing it to another colony, he said.
“There’s a fair amount of research that must be done,” Lester acknowledged.
The Forest Service hasn’t ruled yet on whether to grant a special-use permit to provide access to the caves, White River National Forest spokesman Pat Thrasher said Thursday. “Stay tuned for more,” he said.
The Forest Service is conducting what is calls “scoping” of the request and expects to invite public comment on the issue as early as next week, Thrasher said. A decision is expected in April, a Forest Service document said.
Even if the public access restriction isn’t eased by the Forest Service, the cavers will have plenty to do. Their “Howdy Party” on the opening evening will be held at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park on Iron Mountain above Glenwood Springs.
The convention will also include field trips to study the geology of areas where caves form, workshops on skills such as technical climbing and underground photography, and presentations by experts on a variety of topics, including White Nose Syndrome.
The convention will feature the World Rope Climbing Contest and a public screening of the adventure film, “Journey into Amazing Caves” at the Glenwood Springs High School Auditorium.
While the convention brings together people with a passion for exploring underground, they are actually converging to participate in a variety of activities. “Only a small percentage of the people who come here are expecting to be underground,” Lester said.
The convention last visited Colorado in 1996 when it was held in Salida. That gathering was attended by 1,250 cavers. Lester is planning for anywhere between 900 and 1,500 attendees in Glenwood Springs.
The organization held its 2010 convention in Vermont, where there was also a closure of caves on some public lands, so they aren’t encountering anything new in Colorado. Cavers are well aware of the disease that is decimating bat colonies: They were among the first to report it and they are involved in numerous research efforts.
White Nose Syndrome gets its name from the visual effect on bats. It hasn’t been detected yet in Colorado. Forest Service officials hope to avoid its spread into the state because the mortality rate is 90 to 100 percent in bat colonies. There are hundreds of caves and roughly 30,000 abandoned mines on national forest in the Rocky Mountain Region.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, one of the more unique bat colonies is located in the Crystal Valley. Townsend’s Big-Eared Bats return each spring to establish a maternity colony in an old lead mine that tapped into a natural vapor cave. The Forest Service worked with other agencies and miner Robert Congdon in 2008 to close public access to the mine while keeping it available to migrating bats.
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