Sequoia's Cave: Some More Details

The discovery of another cave in Sequoia National Park is generating a lot of chatter across the country, as the pictures are pretty spectacular. Having toured the park's Crystal Cave, I can tell you that Ursa Minor on first glance appears much more intriguing and beautiful.
But in the wake of my post the other day, one reader asked what rules the folks from the Cave Research Foundation were operating under when they discovered the cave.
"Who gave these cavers permission to dig out this small hole opening? What NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) documentation was done before this hole was dug open?" he asked. "Even Park Service rangers are suppost to get NEPA clearance before digging in a new area. Is this new cave within designated or recommended wilderness and how does that affect the appropriateness of artificially openning up the entrance to gain physical entry."
Good questions all. Read on and I'll provide some answers.

To get the answers, I went to Joel Despain, Sequoia's cave specialist. As for the Cave Research Foundation, it turns out that this non-profit organization works nationwide under a memorandum of understanding with the National Park Service to investigate caves.
"There are various restrictions on the work both from the park Cave Management Plan and from the body of the proposal itself," Despain told me. "This includes no more than four digs at one time; an end to all activity if any bones are found; hand tools and devices only. There have been other caves found and extensions to known caves. Most of the larger caves in the park were dug open -- many by prospectors before the area was a park."
NEPA guidelines must indeed be followed. In this case, NEPA was triggered when Sequoia developed its Cave Management Plan. That plan states "specific provisions for digging and conditions under which it can go forward as well as the management of newly found caves," says Despain. "The current CRF proposal adheres to all of these restrictions and even adds a few more."
Here are some sections of Sequoia's Cave Management Plan that pertain to the discovery of caves:
* Discoveries involving more than 75 feet of total cave passage length or which contain any sensitive cave feature such as delicate speleothems, delicate sediments, archaeological materials, paleontological materials or biological activity will be mapped during the first or second visit by cavers, or Park personnel to the cave. When appropriate, when requested by the cave's discoverers, or at the park's discretion these surveys will be conducted by park personnel.
* Caves containing the above mentioned unusual features will also be photo-documented during initial trips into the cave to create a permanent record of their original appearance. When appropriate, when requested by the cave's discoverers, or at the park's discretion these photographs will be taken by park personnel.
* Archaeological and paleontological items, delicate sediments and speleothems, and any cave life must not be disturbed. During the initial exploration, if it is impossible to proceed without damaging or altering materials, exploration of the cave must be temporarily abandoned until a proper assessment, involving photo-documentation and research, coordinated by the Cave Specialist, can be made.
* In large or delicate passages, exploration parties are also responsible for creating and marking trails or routes of least impact to be followed by all future groups, subject to further review by the cave specialist. By creating such routes during initial exploration, damage to the cave and its varied resources can be kept to a minimum.

Now as to whether the cave will ever be open to the public, contrary to the San Francisco Chronicle story, that decision, fortunately, has not yet been made.
"The cavers may feel that way and that may be a likely outcome, but there is no decision at this time," says Despain. "It is way too soon. We are expecting to do a revision of the park Cave Management Plan over the next couple of years and we would expect to include the management of this cave in that decision-making process that will involve public comment and review."
While park officials are not saying exactly where the cave is, other than that it's within the park's Kaweah River watershed, it is not located in any designated or recommended wilderness areas.