People & Caverns Lesson 3 : Conservation


Students will learn to understand the importance of cavern conservation.

Background Information

A cavern is a fragile environment. That doesn’t mean that it could easily collapse, it means that due to its essentially unchanging environment, any artificial changes may be quite devastating.

The beauty and mystery of caverns should be available for the enjoyment of everyone. However, carelessness and deliberate vandalism can ruin these precious natural environments for all of us.

Some of the ways people have knowingly damaged caverns include:

Damming – Many cavern entrances are on the side of a valley with a river which eroded away the side of the cavern to create the entrance. When a dam is built and the water rises, it goes into this opening and floods the cavern. All cavern life is killed and formations are no longer able to grow.

Vandalism – Selfish people thinking only of their own entertainment paint graffiti or carve on the cavern walls and break formations to take away as souvenirs.

Mining – Some mining techniques such a quarrying break into caverns and destroy them. Sometimes caverns are specifically chosen to be mined for their beautiful formations that are broken out and sold.

There are many ways to damage a cavern without even realizing it:

Lint from your clothing can fall off. While this in itself is not devastating, show caverns with thousands of visitors each year can leave behind quite a collection of difficult to clean lint.

The beautiful formations in caverns are a draw to people. They want to reach out and touch them, and unfortunately, many people do. People have natural body oils and contaminants on their skin. Every time we touch something we leave a light coating of oil and contaminants.

Speleothems grow by continual deposits of calcite. However, when the calcium solution encounters an oily spot, it slides off (just like when you wash your car and water beads up and slides off) Your oil has created a barrier that the calcite cannot cling to. In a sense, that area of the formation is now dead; it can no longer grow and the other contaminants will discolor the formation.

Garbage is a more obvious contaminant, however, many people thoughtlessly drop their litter not realizing how it can negatively effect the cavern’s ecosystem and formation growth.

Without paying attention to their surroundings, people in caverns can make a careless movement that can destroy a formation in a split second which took tens of thousands of years to grow. One wave of the arm, standing up too soon in a low passage, or stepping on fragile formations without looking first – that’s all it takes.

Water pollution – You don’t even have to be in a cavern to effect it with water pollution. When people dump garbage and chemicals in places other than approved dump sites, they may be doing so near a cavern without realizing it. Rainwater carries the contaminants and chemicals into the cavern where they can seriously harm or kill the cavern life. The polluted water then continues down to the water table and contaminates our drinking water.

Improperly developed and maintained sewage systems can also drain into caverns, contaminating them and the water supply.

People who love caverns use the expression to “cave softly.” This refers to being extra careful in and around caverns in order to not damage them or their inhabitants in any way. There are some basic rules that you can follow to be a safe and considerate cavern visitor:

Do not touch any speleothem or formation with your bare hand.

Move carefully. When exploring a wild cavern choose a path through the least sensitive area. Don’t go where damage will be likely to occur. Remember, you do not have to explore everywhere in the cavern.

Do not take any souvenirs – even already broken formations or artifacts. Leave the cavern as you found it, for others to enjoy.

Bring out everything you took in and any other litter you find.

Be aware of cavern life – before exploring a cavern try to find out what types of animals live there. Your presence can have a devastating effect. Hibernating bats will use energy they need to survive until spring if they are disturbed, and may die.

When you need to mark your trail use removable trail markers. Do not make any marks in the cavern.

Cavers care about the preservation of these beautiful subterranean environments and embrace the motto:

“Take only pictures, leave only footprints, kill nothing but time.”

Many cavers are revising this saying to be even more cavern friendly:

“Take nothing but pictures, kill nothing but time, and leave nothing – not even footprints.”

While this is hard to achieve, cavers have found ways to leave no trace of their visit, honoring and preserving the pristine beauty of these protected natural environments. At Sierra Nevada Recreation Corporation, we are very committed to our conservation efforts:
When developing the caverns for access to visitors, great care is taken in avoiding delicate formations when installing walkways, stairs and lighting.
Visitors are not allowed to eat, drink, chew gum or tobacco, or smoke while inside the caverns. The organic garbage they may leave behind can be very harmful to the cavern’s ecosystem.

Even with these precautions, some litter still finds its way into a show cavern. Our cavern naturalists are trained to remove anything that does not belong in the cavern, except artifacts.

Since a cavern is a dark place, the lighting installed to illuminate the beautiful cavern formations changes the natural cavern environment. With light, plant life such as algae is able to grow. Since this is not normal for the cavern, regular maintenance includes the removal of any plant growth. In addition, lighting is held to a minimum and all of the lights are turned off whenever there is no one in the cavern.

Experiments & Activities

Grades K – 4 “No Touching!”


  • 12+ items of irresistible interest
  • sheet
  • mirror or glass with protected edges


The first part of this activity is to help students conquer the urge to touch things.

Spread the items on a table and cover with the sheet (possible items could include toys, candy, crayons, rocks, books)

Have students stand around the table. Ask them to remember a time when they were told to not touch something and ask them what they did. Let a few tell their stories of how they sneaked a quick touch anyway.

Explain that this activity is a no-touching activity. Have them discuss possible ways that they can resist the urge to touch (hands in pockets or behind back, etc.)

Uncover the items and have the students circle the table giving everyone the chance to see all the items up close. Then have them go back to their seats and cover the table again.

Ask students to describe the items they saw by referring to color, shape and texture. This will help them learn that they do not need to touch something in order to observe and understand it.

The second part of this activity is to show students how a simple touch can affect something.

Pass the spotless mirror/glass around so that each student gets a chance to touch it.

When you get it back, walk around showing each student all the fingerprints that are now covering it. These are the natural human oils and contaminants that we deposit each time we touch something. When touching a cavern formation, these oils actually prevent further growth. In a sense, a person kills the area of the formation they touch.

Grades 5 – 8

• Find out the proper places and procedures for disposing of waste.
• Play the Cavern Adventure Board Game included here.

Grades 9 – 12

• Develop a trash cleanup campaign in your community focusing on sewage problems, chemical dumping, etc. near waterways and karst areas.


National Caves Association (NCA)
4138 Dark Hollow Rd.
McMinnville, TN 37110
A non-profit organization of publicly and privately owned show caves in the US. The purpose of the group is to preserve and conserve these natural wonders. Cooperation and the exchange of information and ideas help members work together for the betterment of all aspects of the show cave industry and to better serve the public.

International Show Caves Association
Largo Leone XII
60040 Genga-Ancona, Italy
(39) 732-973315
An organization of show cave operators from around the world. Their main objectives are to promote conservation and preservation of all caves while increasing public interest and promoting economic development of the member caves.

Bat Conservation International, Inc. (BCI)
PO Box 162603
Austin, TX 78716-2603
Phone 512-327-9721
Fax 512-327-9724
A group of volunteers committed to the conservation of bats. Their mission statement is to protect and restore bats and their habitats worldwide. They are committed to teaching people to understand and value bats, protecting bat habitats, and advancing scientific knowledge about bats, their conservation needs and the ecosystems that rely on them through research.

California Bat Conservation Fund
3053 Fillmore St. # 239
San Francisco, CA 94123
A non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of bats. Their major activities include dispelling misconceptions about bats through informative presentations and live-bat displays, restoring injured and orphaned bats to health and returning them to the wild, working alongside major conservation efforts to replenish shrinking bat populations.

National Speleological Society (NSS)
2813 Cave Avenue
Huntsville, AL 35810-4413
Members are cave enthusiasts who enjoy exploring wild caves and helping with cave conservation efforts. The group’s programs include encouraging self-discipline among cavers; education and research concerning the causes and prevention of cave damage; and special projects, including cooperation with other groups similarly dedicated to the conservation of natural areas.