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image, Arizona State Parks.



Guest Editorial
by Ellen Bilbrey, Arizona State Parks

Deep, Dark Secrets Protected This Cave System

Hidden beneath one of the small hills that dot the Chihuahuan Desert lie seven acres of pristine caverns known as Kartchner Caverns State Park, a wet living cave into which water still percolates from the surface above and calcium carbonate features are still growing. Kartchner Caverns is located in Southeastern Arizona and the park above encompasses more than 550 acres at the base of the Coronado National Forests' Whetstone Mountains.

image, Kubla Khan at Kartchner Caverns State Park.
The Kubla Khan column at Kartchner Caverns State Park.
Photo courtesy Arizona State Parks.

Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, two cave enthusiasts, first discovered a small opening in a sinkhole that led to the main cave in 1974. Worrying about potential vandalism, they spent the next two years exploring the cave in secret, even keeping the secret from family and friends. Tufts and Tenen named their extraordinary find "Xanadu.” It wasn't until February 1978 that Tufts and Tenen told the property owners James and Lois Kartchner about Xanadu, and later led them and their five sons down to see it for themselves.

In 1988, fourteen years after Tufts’ and Tenen's discovery, Arizona State Parks purchased the site where the cave still lay hidden beneath a hill, and named it Kartchner Caverns State Park. Since then, Arizona State Parks has conducted many studies of the cave, focusing on protecting its environmental integrity. It has also developed the cave, making it accessible for visitors through a wide, winding path network accessible only through a series of ‘conservation chambers’ that maintain cave conditions. Visitors may see the cave only through the park’s reservation system

Inside, the two main galleries are a kaleidoscope of color with 100-foot high ceilings dripping with multihued stalactites and floors jutting up with matching stalagmites. Giant white columns form where the two meet. Dainty white helictites, translucent orange bacon, and shields of white calcite adorn this natural wonder. An extraordinarily thin stalactite, called a soda straw, hangs tenuously 21 feet 2 inches down from the cave's ceiling. Rare quartz needles form "birds nests” and nitrocalcite "cotton," and an extensive array of microscopic brushite moonmilk are found here and in only a few other caves in the world.

image, Environmental testing in the caverns.
Environmental testing and monitoring ensures the health of the living caverns.
Photo courtesy Arizona State Parks.

Environmental stations constantly monitor the 99% humidity and moderate temperatures inside the cave, which contrasts dramatically with the dry, hot desert above. Unmonitored air exchange could quickly destroy the cave's delicate ecosystem, halt speleothem growth, and diminish the cave's natural beauty.

From April to mid-October, the cave serves as a maternity ward for about 1,000 female Myotis velifer bats that roost there, and tours are not conducted in the Big Room until bats leave with new young in the fall

Above ground, the park has five miles of trails for hiking and an aboveground handicapped accessible loop trail, on-site interpretive programs, and a "Discovery Center.” The center houses the environmentally oriented exhibits that provide information about other show caves in Arizona, the geology of Kartchner Caverns, and the surrounding natural landscapes incorporated into this state park. The exhibits include a documentary 16-minute video explaining why "stewardship" of natural resources is critical for this pristine cave. Interactive exhibits detail the cave exploration, types of cave features, and the cave tour experience. It also highlights the features of a wet cave, cave mammals, biology of the cave, the formations and special features

image, Sheets and cave explorer.
Sheets formed by countless years of dripping water appear magical when lit.
Photo courtesy Arizona State Parks.

With this deep, dark secret now open to the world, every day is a challenge for Dr. Rickard Toomey, the cave’s resource manager. "The cave must be protected from the desert heat because it would ruin the delicate treasures inside where the temperature is just 70 degrees,” he says. “Access is limited to protect the cave from human impact.

Inside the cave, Toomey notes that “Each person has an impact because dry skin cells, hair and fibers fall on the trails. Conservation chambers protect the wet interior from the dry desert and only 'drops' of low light reveal formations along the trail to keep heat down.

Learning more about the living cave system is essential for protecting it, and other systems around the world. In 2002 Toomey initiated the formation of a Science, Education, and Research Advisory Team providing expertise in a variety of scientific fields related to the continued stewardship of the caverns

Now, partnerships to protect its environment and learn more about these new ecological systems with universities, organizations and individuals is the future. The international cave community has recognized Kartchner Caverns State Park as a model program for protecting a cave’s environment. Every day more students are educated about the stewardship of pristine cave systems, just as the original cave discoverers had intended when they chose to bring the dark cave into the light of the public domain.


Ellen Bilbrey is a public information officer with Arizona State Parks. For more information, also visit Friends of Kartchner Caverns State Park.
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