Winner of the 2003 Lowell Thomas Silver Award for Environmental Travel Writing.
On a warm day, our group of 16 entering Kartchner Caverns State Park through a mountainside incision is just another drop, drop, drop in the steady stream of 185,000 people who this year will walk through Arizona's newest tourist attraction.
We are more than tourists gawking at nature's long-hidden glories. We are participants in one big, controversial state-of-the-art experiment to see if a cave can double as a tourist attraction without destroying a sensitive ecosystem that has remained stable for the last 50,000 years.
The implications are greater than the success or failure of one park 90 minutes east of Tucson. Kartchner is an example of an emerging movement that attempts to save fragile ecosystems in places like Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands by turning them into high-tech tourist attractions. Such efforts raise big picture questions: Is this the only way to save these places? Or are these attempts folly, an arrogant affront to the complexity of nature?
The tale of Kartchner Caverns' transformation from pristine cave into giant, terrarium doesn't answer those questions exactly. But it does illustrate the scope of vigilance required to safeguard such natural systems.
Behind the air locks that safeguard the warm, moist womb snuggled inside the Arizona mountainside, our guide leads us along the Rotunda Room, a 200-foot-long, 125-foot high underground sanctum of geologic alchemy carved drop by drop over millions of years. Rock formations in ivory, pink and peach hang from the ceiling, many of them delicate soda straws formed growing only inches in a century. "Cave kisses," drops of moisture, occasionally plop on our heads and shoulders.
We gaze down as the soft lights illuminate this portion of the cave. Before us in the dark, cracked surface of mud flats plows a single-file channel tracing the steps of Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, who discovered the cave in 1974. Every caver who followed them on that route over the years retraced their footsteps, hoping to minimize man's impact on this sanctuary below the sweltering Arizona desert. Now, a group steps through the twin airlock doors every 20 minutes, 28 times a day, 364 days a year.
The falling cave kisses symbolize the lifeblood of the cave – moisture. And that channel through the mud epitomizes the lengths Tufts and Tenen and their friends went to protecting the cave.
Eventually, they reached what seemed like a paradoxical decision: the only way to preserve Kartchner was to turn it into a tourist attraction.
Now, though, there are indications Kartchner is drying out. And critics wonder whether an act intended to preserve this fragile ecosystem may end up killing it.
By the time a new section of the caverns, the Big Room, is opened in a few years and development is completed, Arizona will have spent $32 million and nearly two decades acquiring and then developing Kartchner Caverns.
When Arizona officials purchased the cave in secret from the Kartchner family in 1987, they resolved to create a state-of-the-art show cave. So they spent four years studying the ecology of Kartchner Caverns and consulting with experts before breaking ground. Much of the work was done by hand with no heavy equipment. Workers cut two entrances into the mountainside secured by giant airlock doors, poured 1,225 feet of concrete trails carrying concrete in buckets, and installed lighting and monitoring equipment.
"This is a turning point in the history of developing caves," Jeanne Gurnee, former president of the National Speleological Society and a leading developer of caves, said when Kartchner opened in 1999. "The reason, simply, is technology.... Everything that the caving community has learned about the preserving and showing of caverns is brought into use here."
Two years later, the question is whether the current state-of-the art is good enough to keep Kartchner Caverns alive and growing. The answer may be years, even decades, away.
A warm moist breeze funneling through a sinkhole in November 1974 enticed Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts to squeeze into a small room beneath the surface of Arizona's Whetstone Mountains. Others had been there first; they saw footprints and some broken rock formations. But that didn't account for the source of the breeze, redolent with bat guano, a pheromone for spelunkers, who know it signals a living cave, one still evolving.
Eventually, they traced the breeze to a three-inch hole in a rock 25 feet down a crawl space. Lying on their backs, they pounded at the hole for two hours with a chisel and sledgehammer, eventually widening it enough so they could squeeze through if they exhaled. Tufts later said wriggling through the tiny canal was "like being born all over again."
Indeed, after crawling through a low passage for 100 feet, they emerged into a stunning, pristine cave, rich in colorful mineral deposits and unseen by man perhaps since it began forming in the Mississippian era, 325 million years ago.
Over the ensuing months, they explored the two and a half-mile underground maze, finding one room after another, two roughly the length of a football field. The names they gave them describe their glories -- Throne Room, Subway, Pirate's Den, Grand Canyon, Thunder Room and Grand Central Station.
They christened their buried treasure “Xanadu,” after a place made famous by the fictional Charles Foster Kane palace and named in the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem. They kept it a secret, even from the local speleological society, telling only a small, trusted group so they could be rescued without alerting local authorities. Recreational cavers, they feared, would vandalize the cave, stripping the formations and trashing it. They'd seen it happen time after time. They wanted their cave, rich in colorful mineral deposits and unique rock formations, to remain alive, continuing to evolve as water dripped, forming stalagmites and stalactites.
After a while, they realized the only way to save the cave was to transform it into a tourist attraction.
"There's a Biblical analogy," Tufts says. "We could have remained in the garden secure by not telling anyone about the cave and holding it as our own, but we knew ultimately that was impossible." Somebody else, whether five years or 50 years down the line, would find the cave. They couldn't be sure if that person would be as committed to protecting it.
So they turned to the state of Arizona for help.
Ken Travous, the director of Arizona's State Parks who shepherded the project from 1987, studied biology and understands the complexity of natural systems. He says when he learned about Kartchner, "I realized it was a really unique place, the likes of which had not been seen in Arizona or the Southwest."
But even he concedes that he didn't anticipate all the variables involved. What is it like turning the caverns into a tourist attraction while trying to preserve the delicate underground environment?
"It's like Rubik's Cube where you get one side looking pretty with your decision-making and you flip it over and look at the other side and it's a mess," he adds.
Kartchner Caverns lie beneath a desert where the temperature sometimes reaches 105 degrees and the evaporation rate is 800 times greater than inside the cave. Below ground, the humidity is fairly constant at 99 percent and the temperature hovers around 68 degrees year-round. The entrance discovered by Tufts and Tenen allowed only a small air exchange with the surface, preserving that constant temperature and humidity. Creating an opening visitors could walk through posed a problem; moisture is the cave's life-blood. If Kartchner dries, it will cease becoming a living, changing cave showcasing luminous formations with names like angel wing shield, fried eggs, bacon, popcorn, soda straw, cave cotton, coral pipes and bird nest.
So Arizona officials created a novel solution: our group passes through two sets of freezer doors acting as an airlock. Inside, along the path nearest our entry, misters hiss, putting water back into the air to keep the humidity high.
That was just one of many challenges the attraction's creator faced. Lint falling from our clothing contains "brighteners" -- phosphates from detergents -- that act as fertilizers for algae, which can take cause cave formations to disintegrate. Crews nightly wash down the paths, which have high curbs preventing lint and skin flakes from washing onto the formations. Light causes algae to grow and heats the cave so the lighting system at Kartchner is carefully controlled, coming on only when our group passes by.
From April to September, one corner of the cave becomes a maternity ward to 1,000 to 2,000 myotis bats whose guano is a vital component of the cave's ecology. For that reason, Arizona officials stop construction during the mating season and bar visitors from that area.
Despite the precautions, controversy over the Arizona State Parks department guardianship began even before the cave opened to the public. In the summer of 1999, Tufts and Tenen visited the cave and felt it was considerably drier in places than they remembered. They alerted the Parks Department, making it clear their information was anecdotal, but worth pursuing.
When they asked for data from the monitoring stations in the cave, Tufts and Tenen say it wasn't properly correlated. No one from the state, it seemed to them, had been checking the data for problems. They renewed their calls for Travous and his staff to investigate whether the cave was drying out and warming up.
By September 2000, The New York Times reported that there were signs the cave was drying out -- and thus dying. "Had the Arizona State Parks been properly analyzing the data it would now have a better idea if the changes were caused by the drought, the tunnels, the lights or some other factor, Tenen wrote to the local newspaper.
Bob Buecher, an expert hired by the state to do the original baseline studies on the cave from 1988 to 1992, reviewed the data and discovered indications the cave had been drying since about the time the tunnel entrance was cut. He criticizes Travous for failing to admit there is a problem, despite the evidence. “The drying is something that was identified from the very beginning as the most critical condition that needed to be preserved to keep conditions in the cave to keep the live formations growing and maintain their vivid colors,” he adds.
Travous agrees that indicators showed that humidity had dropped slightly and temperature have risen slightly in the caves. But what isn't clear to him is whether the changes were the result of visitors, cave construction or natural conditions -- like the drought.
"Something, obviously, was going on, but what it was wasn't obvious," Travous says. "From our perspective, they were being Chicken Littles -- the sky was falling. They wanted something dramatic done and we didn't see that it was warranted -- we thought anything we did could add problems down the road."
Buecher says visitors aren’t the problem; he believes construction opened connections between sections of the cave, altering the airflow. He’s been in the cave hundreds of times and says he knows specific places he would look for problems, but the Arizona State Parks Department hasn’t sought his help.
Instead, Travous brought in two other experts. In early 2000, he asked Ron Kerbo, the National Park Service's cave management coordinator and a leading authority, to examine Kartchner. Later that year, he brought in Arrigo Cigna, a leading cave expert from Italy. Both men expressed concern about possible drying. They suggested that the monitoring system be improved and questioned the use of misters.
Kerbo, who expressed concern over the analysis of airflow in the cave and suggested decreasing the intensity of some lights, recommended the state hire a full-time cave manager. That's just what Travous did, hiring Rick Toomey, a Brown University graduate with a doctorate in geological sciences and extensive research in cave paleontology, in April 2001.
Toomey and Travous have made changes to the lighting and are working on upgrading the monitoring systems. But they say they need to move slowly -- "peel away the onion one layer at a time," as Travous says -- because there are so many variables involved.
Take the lower humidity in some areas of the cave. "We need to understand is that a natural occurrence or is it human induced?" Toomey says. He would prefer not to use the misters, but doesn't want to turn them off until he understands better whether the cave is drying out and what effect they have on humidity and air flow.
Toomey, Travous and Kerbo say changes in the cave were expected with development. "The important question," Toomey says, "is what are the limits of acceptable change? Throughout the world in caving and cave management we've learned it's not an easy question to answer."
"We're in good shape, he adds. "We'd like to be in better shape."
Tufts and Tenen warn that the problems haven't gone away, though they praise Toomey's hiring. "I have great confidence in his ability to sort this out and figure out what's causing this problem," Tufts says.
Both men, along with Buecher, still back the decision to develop the cave, even though they are critical of Travous. Running such a sensitive cave as a park means eternal vigilance, Tufts says.
So does he think the cave will remain alive, continuing to evolve, creating the stunning formations that make it an attraction?
"Ask me that question in about 300 years," he answers.