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In A Nutshell
You've been locked out of Natural Bridge Cave so it can be used in an experiment to establish a colony of Virginia big-eared bats in the Park. If people are freely allowed to enter, a colony can never develop there. Other local caves shelter thousands of Virginias, but Natural Bridge State Park wants a colony too!
Park personnel tell that the cave was closed to free public access because of problems with graffiti and trash, and that the situation was so bad that the cave had to be cleaned each day.. Interestingly, people who regularly visited the cave saw little change in the amount of graffiti in the years before its closing, and their photos seem to prove this. None ever reported seeing cleaning or maintenance being done in the cave. And when people volunteered to remove what little graffiti was there, they were forbidden to do so!!!
Before the barriers went up, requests for public hearings were made so that "we the people" could decide the fate of this cave - which we own. No hearings were ever held because those responsible for the barriers have no interest in your ideas or your rights to your Park.
The Boring Details
Early in the summer of 2007 it was "accidentally" discovered that there was a plan to erect heavy steel barriers across the entrances to a cave located above Hemlock Lodge. Commonly known as Natural Bridge Cave, many people consider it the second most important natural attraction in the Park - Natural Bridge obviously being the first.
As word of the closing spread, people inquired about the reason. They were told by Park management that it was necessary for the protection of a rare bat, called the Virginia big-eared bat, which was first sighted in Kentucky in this cave. In these meetings and communications, protecting endangered bats was always the primary stated reason for limiting public access, and people were assured that they would still be allowed to enter the cave except when bats were hibernating. There was denial that the public would be completely barred from the cave should a significant colony ever become established there.
At these meetings, experienced cavers pointed out that within a few miles of the Park there are many caves where bats can find refuge. The officials were told about several local caves where endangered bats have been seen, and were reminded about the huge gated cave, less than 10 miles from the Park, where several thousand Virginias hibernate. The fact that there are several caves located within the Park's boundaries was also discussed, as was the great number of Kentucky caves which have already been closed.
It was also pointed out that the first documented sightings of these endangered bats was in the 1950's, even though the Park had been open for tourism since 1896. Numerous scientists and biologists toured this cave in the early days of the Park, but except for one undocumented statement, none made any mention of seeing big-eared bats (which are hard to miss because of their long, rabbit-like ears). Because of the lack of early sightings, and infrequent sightings since, it is possible that there was never a permanent colony of Virginias in this cave, and that its only use to them has been as a temporary roost.
As information about this controversy became more public, government officials changed their story! Suddenly, it was "vandalism of the cave" which became the primary justification for restricting access. Park personnel began saying that cleaning the cave and removing evidence of vandalism was a daily affair. Interestingly, no Park visitor has yet to report to SaveOurCave that they ever saw anyone in the cave doing cleaning or maintenance. Even those who have regularly visited the cave for decades say that they rarely, if ever, saw any Park personnel in the cave. Frequent visitors testify that in the days before the barriers were erected they saw no more graffiti than they saw a year or more ago, and their photos seem to prove this.
Acts of vandalism did, of course, periodically occur inside the cave, just as they frequently occur outside the main cave entrance and elsewhere in the Park. A few people also left trash in the cave - as they do in the rest of the Park.
Because of stringent rules about getting off trails - and the Park's enforcement of said rules - people live in fear of stepping off a trail to urinate or heed other calls of nature. Though it cannot be considered justification, when the sudden, painful "call" occurred, some apparently took advantage of the privacy and darkness of the cave to relieve themselves. Before the Park began enforcing these stringent and often ridiculous rules, the odor of urine in the cave was exceedingly rare.
Members of SaveOurCave have spoken with a number of people about the issue of vandalism, including former State Park employees. Most, especially those who have visited the Park for decades, say the vandalism problems are no worse - and possibly not as bad - as they were decades ago. Suggestions were offered to Park management about ways to minimize the vandalism by using more patrols, installing electronic surveillance, using the assistance of volunteers, or increasing penalties, but no interest was shown in these ideas. This refusal to consider viable alternatives, coupled with the fact that the Park would not allow volunteers to remove the vandalism seen in the cave, reinforces our belief that claims of "excessive vandalism" are simply propaganda to justify erection of the barriers.
The latest excuse given by Park management to justify the barriers is "public safety." The press was told that only by strictly controlling cave access could visitors' safety be assured. It's interesting to note, however, that in the last 112 years there have been few serious accidents in this cave, and most visitors have never seen anyone hurt there. This cannot be said for the Natural Bridge, of course. Numerous people have fallen off of it, and some of them died. In order to best assure the safety of Park visitors, perhaps the Park's management should do what they have already considered: build a walkway above the Natural Bridge so that people can't set foot on it, or get near the edge. Or better yet, simply keep people out of Natural Bridge State Park, as one of the Park's naturalists suggested.
Since 1896, this Park has been open to the public and several million people have visited Natural Bridge Cave. Many decades ago a deep gully at the front entrance was filled so that visitors could more easily enter, electric lights were installed, a concrete sidewalk was poured inside to cave to prevent visitors from falling into a deep crevasse, and the rear entrance was enlarged so that people could more easily exit. These alterations caused major changes to air flows, humidity, temperature, and water movement, thus dramatically affecting the creatures which lived there. Unfortunately, these alterations can never be effectively undone, and the cave can never be restored to its virgin state.
The positive side to these alterations was the effective “creation” of one of the most perfect caves in the world for introducing people of all ages to the wonders of the netherworld. It offered a “wild cave” experience, yet was extremely easy to access and very safe. The dimensions of the cave’s entrance and main passage made it easy for the physically impaired and the claustrophobic to have a joyous caving experience.
Over many decades, countless parents took advantage of this cave to introduce their children to a world of mystery and beauty, and instill in them a reverence for this unique portion of God‘s creation. Countless professional and lay teachers have used the cave to educate their students in ways not possible in a classroom - or on some guided tour. Countless hot and weary hikers found respite from the summer’s heat and were inadvertently introduced to a cool and wonderful world they never knew before.
Over the years, many ignorant people did damage to the cave, but the vast majority of visitors treated it with the utmost respect.
Except for its tremendous value to humans, Natural Bridge Cave is not special in any way, and limiting free public access to it is absolutely not critical to the survival of the Virginia big-eared bat. All evidence leads us to believe that putting barriers on this very historic and very beloved cave is utterly needless. And gating it in such a manner as to deny entry to the elderly, the handicapped, and the obese is despicable beyond description.
With the great need that Kentucky has for tourism, it seems irrational to bar tourists from one of the most popular places in Natural Bridge State Park. Better ways to protect the cave might have been found if the public would have been made an integral part of the decision making process - but this was not allowed. All plans were made long before the public became aware of them.
104 years ago, Sir Francis Galton learned, to his chagrin, that the collective wisdom of the masses almost always produces better decisions than those made by a learned few. Apparently this understanding has been greatly forgotten by many in our government, along with the concept of what democracy is about. We are reminded of some words from A Treatise on Despotism: “Any time that bureaucrats refuse to ascertain the will of the people, they cease being servants of the people and become the enemy of the people.”
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