Hearings and Business Meetings
July 20, 2005
SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 02:00 PM
Ms. Penelope Boston
Director, Cave and Karst Studies Program, New Mexico Tech
Testimony in Support of S. 1170, to Establish the Fort Stanton-Snowy River National Cave Conservation Area – July 20, 2005
Penelope J. Boston, PhD
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Socorro, NM
First Science Assessment Trip – July 2003
Why Care About Caves and Karst Terrain?
Human beings live primarily on Earth’s surface and are intimately familiar with much of the biology, geology, and other natural features that make up what we think of as our planet. But, beneath our feet in many parts of the world is an entirely unseen realm of great beauty, fragile biology, exquisite minerals, and a window inside the very skin of Earth. This realm is composed of Earth’s many caves, places that differ so much from the overlying surface environment that people often feel that they might as well be on another planet.
For those whose only experience of caves is an occasional childhood trip to a developed tourist cavern, the enormous diversity of Earth’s subsurface comes as a surprise. Caves can be tiny or immense and labyrinthine. They can be filled with water, filled with air or other gases, or even have major rivers and sinking streams running through them. Although most caves are formed in soluble rocks like limestone and dolomite, every major rock type can be acted on by cave-forming geological and hydrological processes. Some can be entered by natural openings while others are accidentally discovered during construction or road-building activities. There are jewel-like caverns in marble in California, sinkholes and caverns thickly dotting the rolling green landscape of the Cumberland Plateau and beyond, dramatic vertical systems in some of our jagged dolomite mountain ranges, tubes formed from molten lava on the flanks of volcanoes in New Mexico and the Pacific Northwest, rock shelters eroded into sandstone sea cliffs along many of our coasts, granite fissure caves in the New England states and many more varieties.
The term “karst” is a word that refers to landforms created by dissolving soluble rocks. Caves are one of the most characteristic features that occur typically in karst terrains. Besides caves, karst is frequently characterized by sinkholes that are potential geohazards to people and their structures but also can be water resources for wildlife. Aquifers that occur in karst, i.e., in highly fractured limestone or dolomite rock, are very different from ordinary sand aquifers. In the latter, water percolating from above takes time to move through the pores of the aquifer down to the water table. This relatively slow process through very small rock pores enables extensive filtration of the water to occur, thus helping to purify the water. In the case of karst aquifers, the water has a very rapid path through the many fractures in this type of rock, thus, if a pollutant enters a karst system at the surface, it practically has a super highway trip down to the water table. Little filtration can occur, thus making karst aquifers very susceptible to pollution. Karst terrain and caves impose extra and highly specialized management burdens on our land management agencies charged with their protection.
Despite the wonders of the underground world, caves and karst landforms are part of perhaps the least protected of all of our wilderness treasures. Because we don’t normally see them, out of sight is indeed out of mind. They have perennially been used as trash pits for all types of waste including even hazardous chemicals spilled or even purposely introduced toxic substances. The introduction of such foreign material into a delicately balanced, low organic nutrient system like a cave is tremendously detrimental to both the geology and especially the living organisms from microbes to delicate transparent cave fish and salamanders that live within them. Caves are regularly vandalized, their decorations removed for illicit sale or simply thoughtlessly smashed, the precious archaeological and paleontological remains in many caves are looted or destroyed. With the advent of the Internet and GPS technology, cave locations kept secret for decades have now become public knowledge attracting additional vandalism and looting.
Over the past few decades, the recreational caving community, cave scientists (speleologists), and conservationists have made major gains in raising the awareness of the public about the fragile nature of cave systems and the precious geological and biological resources that are housed within them. Many of these individuals, local caving groups (known as “grottoes”), and major organizations like the National Speleological Society, the American Cave Conservation Association, Karst Waters Institute, and others have worked closely with BLM, US Forest Service, and NPS personnel to help in the management, scientific study, and conservation of the Underground. Indeed, caver volunteer hours are being documented in some areas and amount to literally tens of thousands of person-hours, often of highly skilled technically and scientifically trained people. The caves of the United States have benefited enormously from this major volunteer effort. However, volunteer efforts alone can go only so far. We must provide our land management agencies like the BLM with the tools they need to enforce protection of our underground wilderness.
Why is Snowy River Special?
The amazing sparkling calcite “frozen river” of Snowy River in Ft. Stanton Cave, NM is unique amongst known mineral formations of known caves in the world. This brilliantly white crystalline formation has been traced for over 2 miles in entirely pristine passage in otherwise well-known Ft. Stanton Cave. This cave has been visited since before historical times by indigenous peoples, and used extensively since colonization by European settlers. A few decades ago, Ft. Stanton was considered virtually a “trash cave” because of extensive vandalism and other abuse of its then-known passages. The dedicated efforts of a handful of volunteers and BLM personnel over the past number of years has restored this cave to its rightful place as a major cave resource managed by the Roswell BLM office under the State of New Mexico regional BLM. Cave explorers have now presented us with a splendid feature of unparalleled magnificence, a river of glittering crystals. Thus, the efforts to save a thoughtlessly trashed cave have rewarded us many fold.
Besides the scenic and scientific importance of the Snowy River formation itself, this passage contains other scientific finds of significance. My own research concerns the microorganisms that inhabit caves and contribute to the breakdown of bedrock and the precipitation of many biogenic minerals. Such organisms, though microscopically tiny, can act as major geological agents over time. Additionally, they are primarily novel species unknown to science. Each cave that we are studying yields up new sets of hundreds to thousands of new organisms. Such untapped biological wealth is ripe for exploration seeking sources of new pharmaceuticals, industrial agents like novel enzymes that can act in extreme chemical conditions, and insight into the microbial role in the very production of economically significant low-temperature ores including uranium, gold, copper, manganese, and many other minerals. As an example, Actinomycete and Streptomycete organisms are two of the major groups that produce the antibiotics upon which so much of modern medicine depends. These organisms abound in these environments and Snowy River is no exception. Black coatings full of manganese-oxidizing bacteria occur on much of the wall rock in the Snowy River Passage. Actinomycete colonies sparkle as shiny white and yellow dots on many of the walls throughout the cave.
Other scientists are interested in many other facets of Snowy River. Plans are afoot to date the age of the formation and to study the hydrological conditions that led to its occurrence. Geochemistry and isotopic data from both the sparkling calcite and other materials in the cave are of great interest. The climate history over the past few thousand years may be hidden in the chemistry and mineralogy of the River and its surroundings.
Today is the 36th anniversary of our first human landing on the moon by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. That frontier still beckons us, but so too should the unexplored realms here on Earth. The cave frontier offers much promise for science, as a possible provider of biological and geological resources, and places of beauty to feed the human spirit. It is our duty to protect it as best we can.
Beautiful crystalline selenite stars cover passage walls on the way to Snowy River.