Keeping Caves Clean

The Need for Keeping Caves Clean

“Take nothing but pictures, leave no trace of your visit and kill nothing but time” is a long-time golden rule of caving that has evolved through the years. Fragile cave ecosystems pay the price when human visitors leave garbage behind.

One might look at empty aluminum cans discarded inside caves as harmless relics of careless cave visitors. After all, aluminum doesn’t rust like iron or steel, and doesn’t disintegrate and “soak” into bodies of water to contaminate them. However, the cans are death traps to any number of cave biota, some of which may be rare or endangered species. Odors from the residue in the cans attract crickets, gnats, salamanders, diplurans, snails and other small species that are important to the cave ecosystem. A quirk of their shape and design, aluminum beer and soda cans are easy for small critters to climb up and drop into. However, once inside, the small hapless creatures drown or the residual liquid poisons them and/or they perish because they are unable to climb back out of the cans. Dead and decaying animals trapped inside the cans can attract other species of cave life that would normally scavenge rotting organic material and they too become trapped inside the cans.

How Visitors Contribute to Cave Pollution

Careless human visitors leave other forms of trash in caves that can pollute the cave with noxious chemicals and change the pH of bodies of water. For example, many Missouri caves contain corroding batteries from electric lights and spent carbide from carbide caving lights. In addition to batteries, thoughtless visitors leave various types of trash containing toxic materials that have detrimental effects on cave ecosystems.

What You and Your Caving Companions Can Do

1. Don’t discard any of your food and drink wrappers or spent light fuel in caves, and take out any human waste material you might generate (using airtight, watertight containers). Any man-made material can alter the cave environment and send the cave ecosystem into a downward spiral. Cave environments are delicate and fragile and do not readily recover from disturbances that cause negative impacts.

2. Each time you go into a cave, bring a trash bag. Fold the bag neatly inside your pocket, a fanny pack or inside your caving helmet above the suspension webbing. And, when you find trash, do your part in collecting as much as you can and take it out of the cave where it will not continue to harm the cave environment.

3. Always remember the golden rule of caving.

About the author:  Active in the caving community for four decades, Jonathan Beard’s interest in caves began in 1970 as a photographer and by 1981 he was helping to map caves. In 1983, Jon began co-management of his first gated cave, which coincided with a new interest —restoring vandalized caves. Jon has helped map about 150 caves, has been the director and principle surveyor in 150 other cave surveys. In the course of his caving career, Jon has also conducted and directed restoration work in many caves.

Jon Beard is a frequent contributor of feature articles for caving publications and websites. His credits as an author and editor include, Caves in Kansas co-authored with Jim Young in 1984 and published by the Kansas Geological Survey as part of its popular Education Series; co-editor of Exploring Missouri Caves, the guidebook to the 1997 annual National Speleological Society convention; co-author of the 2009 publication, Caring for Your Karst, published by the Springfield Plateau Grotto with financial assistance from the MCKC.

If you have questions about our organization, would like a permit to visit an MCKC managed cave or need help managing a cave on your property, we invite you to contact us.