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The 17,000 caves in the US — and the bats that inhabit them — are facing environmental challenges

Posted at 7:45 AM, Dec 31, 2019
and last updated 2020-01-03 11:47:00-05

QUICKSBURG, Va. — Forged by the hands of time, vaulted ceilings unveil unusual rock formations inside the Shenandoah Caverns in Virginia.

“Truly, the history of the Earth begins at its core,” said Joe Proctor, who manages the caverns. “A tremendous amount of formations have grown in these caverns.”

These caves are just some of the more than 17,000 caves found across the country.

“All caverns in the United States are truly different from one another,” Proctor said as he looked around. “It is a beautiful show cave.”

It’s a so-called “show cave” because it’s meant to “show off” the cave in a less wild, more accessible way to educate the public about the importance and fragility of caves.

Caves — along with the fresh water in them — are increasingly facing challenges.

“That is the source of drinking water and safe water supplies,” said Amanda Willis of the National Speleological Society. “So, just polluting that through animal and human waste, oil, trash and sinkholes can dilute and completely wipe out a whole system, a whole spring, a whole cave environment.”

That’s not all. Millions of bats that live in caves have died from White-Nose Syndrome — spread possibly, in part, through the shoes and equipment of people going into wild caves. Since 2006, 6 million bats have died.

“If there is no cure or treatment found, in 15 years there will be a regional extinction of bats,” Willis said.

That is part of the reason why cave experts believe cave education is critical and why show caves, like the Shenandoah Caverns, play an important role.

“You can go to a show cave and learn,” Willis said. “And education is the first step in conservation.”

It’s a role that Proctor embraces.

“It’s a responsibility I take to heart and I really love it because I was born and raised here,” he said. “But protecting these caverns and being able to show them to future generations is my goal.”

The Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988 protects caves, but only those that are on federal lands. Some states, like Virginia, do have their own set of state laws protecting them but not all do.

For more information on the Shenandoah Caverns, click here. You can find out more about caves and the work of the National Speleological Society here.