Story by Rebecca Urbanczyk, GBI Research Associate. Photos by Rebecca Urbanczyk, Deanna Stever and Emily Simpson.
Ever since my first subterranean adventure in West Virginia, I have been hooked on caves and everything inside of them. So when I was offered the Cave Management Specialist job with the Great Basin Institute and the Bureau of Land Management-Ely District in Eastern Nevada, I couldn’t have been more thrilled! This position has allowed me to put my educational background in natural resources planning and my passion for caves into practice.
Despite these features—or perhaps because of them—recreational caving continues to increase, and managing our cave resources becomes more imperative in order to ensure human visitation doesn’t destroy caves’ unique characteristics for future generations. No matter how small, humans leave an impact on caves with every visit. Whether they are touching formations with their bare hands or etching their name into cave walls, dropping trash, or leaving behind things one would ever notice, such as lint and dead skin cells, everyone impacts the condition of a cave.
One of the most exciting components of my position is to monitor the caves and their resources for the district. Monitoring efforts include gathering information on a cave’s temperature and humidity, collecting bat guano for White-Nose Syndrome analysis, collecting visitation data (through registers), and taking pictures to document any changes throughout the cave, such as vandalism.
The Cave Management Specialist position has given me the opportunity to make a positive impact on the district’s caves and associated resources. My primary task is to prepare the District-wide Cave Management Plan and Environment Assessment. This plan will establish direction for long-term management, planning, and oversight of the cave resources and identify specific management actions for recreational use, scientific research, and the management of cave resources. It will also provide a framework for cave resource management to preserve the delicate balance between the natural, undisturbed ecosystems within caves on one hand, and recreational caving, scientific research, and surface uses above caves.
Many fear the absence of light, but for me, nothing is more soothing then being in the “dark zone” of the cave with all of my lights off. When you are far enough inside a cave, you have the opportunity to be in absolute darkness and silence (most of the time). No matter how hard your eyes try to fight it, they will never adjust to the complete darkness. That’s why it’s critical to carry three reliable sources of light with you at all times. Darkness can disorientate you and cause immediate panic, especially if you think you’re lost. To help me fight back any panicky feelings, I like to look behind me periodically when I travel inside the cave to orientate myself from both directions.
It’s important to know your limits upon entering a cave because sometimes you will encounter some very tight squeezes or passageways. I’ve been in a few questionable squeezes where I tried to push my limits to the extreme and got into some scary situations. Claustrophobia is not a joke! It can cause an immediate panic attack if you don’t breathe and calm yourself down. If you do think you’re stuck, evaluate the situation. You might just need to reposition yourself or take off some gear to create more room to move. In any case, it is crucial to not put yourself in any unsafe or questionable situation. When caving, be smart and responsible at all times. It’s a fun and dirty sport, but like all other sports, safety is always important.
Currently, not much is known about some of the caves on the district. While some caves are extremely accessible and highly visited, other caves are remote, challenging to access, and nearly untouched by humans. Implementing the management plan will establish protocols to gather baseline monitoring data for each known cave in the district, allowing the Bureau of Land Management to compare data year after year and determine what actions are necessary in order to keep these unique environments and recreational opportunities beautiful, intact and healthy for the long run.