Arizona’s Parks In Peril: Kartchner Caverns State Park

[Source: Gretchen Mominee,]

Photo credit: Arizona State Parks

The volunteer leading our tour, John, tells us that being dripped on during the tour is good luck, sort of like a blessing from the cave. He says those drips are called “cave kisses.”

Kartchner Caverns is a living cave, which means that it is still in the process of becoming, still growing and changing. It is a work in progress. As you read this sentence, drops of mineral-rich water are slowly dripping from the tip of a stalactite or slipping from the end of a soda straw, a skinny hollow tube growing from the cave’s ceiling.  The stalactites and stalagmites are infinitesimally growing toward one another. The incredibly beautiful and majestic formation, Kubla Khan, continues to form.

This cave was forming long, long before the day in 1974 when two University of Arizona students, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, chiseled an opening wide enough to wriggle through and become the first human beings to ever stand inside it. Imagine the wonder of knowing that you’ve just discovered something miraculously beautiful that no one else has ever seen.

Tenen and Tufts knew they had made an incredible discovery. Because they were avid cavers and had seen the damage done to other caves by carelessness and vandalism, they kept their find a secret for a long time, eventually sharing it with the landowners. Together, they spent years ensuring that the cave would be protected, and that they could be shared with the public in a responsible way that would allow people to experience and learn about the cave without harming the fragile formations inside.

Kartchner Caverns State Park opened in 1999. It was one of the parks that Arizona legislators voted to be closed this year, despite the fact that Arizona State Parks make $260 million for the state annually. To call this decision short-sighted is an understatement.

The cave doesn’t need us. If they close Kartchner Caverns State Park and no human ever sets foot in it again, it won’t matter to the cave. Bats will continue to roost and raise their young in the Big Room. The massive 58 foot column Tenen and Tufts call Kubla Khan will still stand as a testament to what nature can do with water, minerals and tens of thousands of years. Stalactites and stalagmites will continue their inexorable journey toward one another and in time will be joined. Soda straws will grow and fall. The ghosts of the good intentions and efforts of many will linger in the cave, but the cave will be fine.

The cave doesn’t need us. But maybe we need the cave. Maybe we need the opportunity to see geologic time at play. To be able to access the fragile beauty of a place that has been forming for so long it’s almost unfathomable.

Maybe we need to be able to stand inside the cave and hear the story of two college kids who found something magical and wondrous and wanted to share it with the world in such a way that it would be available to all of us and future generations.

Maybe we need the possibility of being baptized by cave kisses, of receiving a blessing from a living cave, to be reminded that we are all, after all, works in progress.

Maybe, as John Muir wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.”

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