BLM educational partnership brings 7th graders to visit Fort Stanton Cave
Wendy Brown, BLM-New Mexico Pecos District External Affairs
An award-winning educational program about caves culminated in a Bureau of Land Management cave specialist leading six groups of local seventh grade students into the Fort Stanton Cave on Sept. 12, 13 and 14.
Knutt Peterson, the cave specialist for BLM’s Roswell Field Office, said BLM personnel worked with the Public Lands Interpretive Association, a nonprofit organization, to develop “Caver Quest Academy,” which includes classroom instruction, an educational video game and a field trip into the cave.
Caves are common in the area, and the program’s purpose is to educate youths about cave safety and foster a new generation of cavers, Peterson said. The program, in its second year, won an outstanding public engagement award at the Public Lands Alliance’s 2023 Partnership Awards presentation.
Warren Kasper, manager of the Fort Stanton-Snowy River Cave National Conservation Area, said the trip was also special because the BLM limits access to the cave to 350 people per year for scientific and educational activities and does not allow recreational caving due to precautions against White-nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed millions of bats in North America since 2006.
The program is important because it provides students with a quality science-based experience, Kasper said.
“We’re getting the word out about scientific activities on public lands and on our conservation area and we’re building future stewards of our public lands by having them come on and have these great experiences,” Kasper said.
At the cave, Kasper, Peterson and Roberta Archuleta, program manager for the Public Lands Interpretive Association, helped ready students for their underground visit. To enter the cave, students had to wear cave equipment specifically designated for use in the Fort Stanton Cave only. The equipment included coveralls, helmets with headlights, and gloves.
BLM officials reduce the possibility of transmitting White-nose Syndrome by providing the gear. The dedicated gear program has also made it possible to expand the number of limited educational entries. “All of the cave gear that’s used now in this cave only comes in and out of this cave,” Peterson said.
Aimee Vasquez, a teacher at Ruidoso Middle School who helped chaperone students Sept. 14, said she also participated last year, and was scared the first time she entered the cave, but has overcome her trepidation.
“I think you guys do a very good job of making us feel comfortable going in [the cave],” Vasquez said. “You prepare us for everything that we’re going to see. Thank you to BLM for letting us come, and thank you for taking these kiddos, because I know that they’ve been looking forward to this.”
As for the students, during the first cave tour Sept. 14, Peterson had everyone shut off their lights for about a minute so they could fully experience the quiet and darkness inside the cave. No one made a sound–not one giggle–and when Peterson then asked students what they thought of the visit, several at once said it was fun.
Emberlyn Stahl, a student, said she had visited Carlsbad Caverns before, but had never been inside an undeveloped cave until her Fort Stanton Cave visit.
“It was definitely a new experience for me,” Stahl said. “I really liked it when they turned all the lights off and it was just pitch black. It was relaxing. There was nothing happening. It was just relaxing in complete darkness.”