Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Our own Perfesser Chaos takes a reporter from The Allegheny Front on a tour of of the graves of our old hunting grounds.

We cavers have a grim category of stomping ground known as the "sacrifice cave."

A sacrifice cave is easily-accessible, near a road. It does not require an extended hike to reach the entrance, and the cave itself is non-technical in nature, requiring no special equipment or technique. It generally has a long history of local exploitation and "recreational" visits, often going back for centuries.

And it has already been trashed.

Any speleothems have been long-ago broken off by klutzes or thieves. Delicate habitat for troglobitic and troglophilic creatures is often beyond memory. There is trash. Graffiti. Miles of string. Party refuse. The remains of "campfires" lit by geniuses unclear on the concept of the chimney. And don't drink the water.

When someone new wants to try caving, we take him to a sacrifice cave. Ditto for kids -- cavers' kids, our nieces, troops of scouts whose leaders want to take them on an adventure.

When we train our SAR dogs for underground search, we almost always use sacrifice caves.

On the one hand, if the new guest turns out to be a klutz or a cretin, there is little harm that he can do that hasn't already been done. He won't be invited on a trip to a more remote, protected, hazardous and unspoiled cave.

On the other hand, the condition of the sacrifice cave becomes an object lesson and an inspiration for the sincere wannabe caver. Here's where treasure hunters took sledgehammers to the stalactite that took millenia to form. There were the delicate soda straws swept away by the leaden head of some galoot crawling around with a $3 flashlight in his teeth. Over there is the elfin corpse of a bat knocked from the ceiling last Saturday by a drunken frat boy. See what we have lost?

Later, when the initiate wriggles down a secret hole after a long hike along a remote limestone ridge, rappels two eighty foot drops, and traverses an exposed cleft to finally find herself gaping among grinning friends in a sparkling vaulted gallery of pristine speleothems, she will remember all those mud-smeared, battered and spray-painted sacrifice caves where she learned her skills and earned her invitation. And fiercely swear not here -- not ever.

Otherwise, it was no sacrifice, just another pointless atrocity.


  1. My old stomping grounds paid the ultimate sacrifice.

    The wilderness of my childhood, from the Cleveland Massilon road west into Medina was once all woodlands and farmers fields.

    It's an assemblage of McMansions, strip malls with fancy names and eateries.

    I have not been since my last deer hunt with my brother, twenty years ago. Even then we had to trek a little further and all our favorite places were already gone.

  2. There's a fair piece of wild, unfarmed land 20 minute's drive from the house where we do our stomping, and I hear you on sprawl, Linda...we've watched farmland go up in McCondos, city people build and move out in the middle of a working cornfield to "live in the country," and even the road along where the acreage is has gone up in country homes with large tracts of land.

    I would call a lot of historical buildings "sacrifice past" or something like that. I love old buildings (especially of the abandoned variety), but others seem to think that the buildings are their personal canvases for hideous graffiti and arson. Not only is it disrespectful towards the property owners (who may or may not care if the property disintegrates), but it's also a smack in the face to the history of the property. There's tasteful "I was here at this time" stuff (bad pic, but...1898!!), and then there's this.

    It's despicable.

  3. Another example of the Tragedy of the Commons.

    This is why "communal" and "universal" are dreaded words in my political philosophy. If you don't actually have to sacrifice to achieve, if you don't pay a price to play, then then individual values of the many are held hostage by the whims of the few.

    One might scoff at private ownership and commercialization of natural wonders like caves, but I've seen it done right in Glenwood Springs, CO.

    Although there are some amusement park like trappings on the mountain top (giant swing, 2 person roller coaster, bungee-trampoline, gift shop) the inside of the cave is amazingly well kept.

    All tours are guided, no obtrusive signage, very little destruction in the name of accommodation, and most importantly a restoration of the cave as a living system using dual air lock doors, restoring the temperature and humidity lost well over a hundred years ago when the cave was first discovered and used for Victorian get aways.

    Once desiccated features are actually growing (ever slowly) again.

  4. Wow.

    You have no fucking idea what you are talking about.

    Way to miss the point.

    Good thing those orcas are privately owned and not running around wild where they wouldn't be well-maintained.

  5. Missed the point? I don't think so. This cave you mention is a _textbook_ example of the the Tragedy of the Commons.

    If this cave was privately owned, with a lock on the entrance, a fee to use, a guardian, and part of those proceeds were spent to clean, maintain, and repair the cave, it wouldn't be such a tragedy, would it?

    Such a solution would prevent the wanton and capricious destruction while still allowing access.

  6. As for the Orcas, I think you're injecting a non-sequitur.

    Orcas in the wild are only protected by the same benefit of geography that your "secret" caves are protected by. They're simply inconvenient for a large number of people to interact with.

    The "tragedy" in the model assumes ACCESS. Privatization is a means to limit access.

    Wild species and places that are easy to access (say, the Great Barrier Reef or Hanauma Bay) are clear examples of marine environments that are degraded in same ways as Sacrifice Cave.

    Unlike most of the GBR, new efforts to limit access and increase education at HB are slowing or perhaps reversing the damage.

    I didn't say privatization was the perfect answer for every problem, but it is relevant here and to my larger point about communal/universal/public goods.

    Perhaps the Orcas are better off at a distance in the wild, but can't I say the same thing about the caves. Not a single one has been better off having had YOU explore it. No?

  7. A little research with teh googles and you might keep your foot out of it.

    Virtually every sacrifice cave -- virtually every cave in this part of the country -- is privately owned. On private land. Has been in private hands for hundreds of years.

    Every commercialized cave is a sacrifice cave. The ultimate sacrifice. Pretty much the same sacrifice made with an orca in a bathtub. What part of paved walkways and handrails and colored lighting = "preserved wilderness" to you?

    The farmland of Cranberry has been similarly "conserved" by having condos slapped up on it. I mean, there's still a piece of ground there, right? It hasn't folded into a sink in the time-space vortex and sucked Adams township to the border of Beaver county, so it's still okay. And the lawns are "amazingly well-kept."

    Very few caves are suitable for commercialization.

    Landowners who care about the integrity of the wild caves on their land (and that really is most of them, after decades of outreach from the caving community) rely on real cavers to monitor and protect them. Cavers don't get paid for this. Cavers -- organized in local NSS grottos -- not only strive to minimize the impact of every visit, they are the field researchers, hands-on conservators, political advocates, legal champions, and when they can swing it, legal owners of the caves. (Individually, or more often, via conservancies.)

    We don't protect the caves because we own them and can wring profit out of them, we seek to own them so we can better protect them.

    Wild caves that are at high risk of misuse or of killing someone (necessitating a damaging-to-the-cave rescue or recovery) are sometimes gated to keep out idiots. Generally a grotto or cave conservancy has the key. No one pays for access with anything other than hard-won credibility.

    I'm having a hard time remembering any trip to a sensitive cave that did not have some explicit research or conservation objective that was of direct benefit to the cave and/or its residents.

    So yes, every cave I have explored has accrued an individual benefit from that trip.

    Which is certainly more than can be said for your gawking from the walkway at the remnants of poor, dead, dynamited Fairy Cave.

    Who dynamited a hole in the side of Fairy Cave, and killed it?

    Why, its private owner, who else?

  8. Thank you for proving my point. I absolutely support private conservancies.

    I didn't say privatization alone was sufficient. I didn't even say it was necessary. An absentee owner who doesn't enforce their property rights and allows infinite tresspass is existentially creating a public space.

    You'll have to agree that the conditions I listed are not being met. No Door. No Lock. No Fee. No Guardian.

    I imagine in the case of this cave, a lawsuit for either adverse possession, attractive nuisance, or a simple easement would be successful. If you want to save what's left, file suit.

    I also find it questionable that no one, not once, has ever injured themselves on this property and brought a claim. If what you say is true, this cave is a major liability just waiting to bankrupt the landowner who apparently is deriving no benefit at all from the cave.

    That is an unsustainable situation.

  9. Field geologists have sacrifice outcrops and collecting localities too.

    Some places are just too precious to share with anyone who isn't willing to make a significant sacrifice in order to enjoy them.


I've enabled the comments for all users; if you are posting as "anonymous" you MUST sign your comment. Anonymous unsigned comments will be deleted. Trolls, spammers, and litigants will be shot.