Photograph of a man wearing protective gear in a cave looking at bones.
Bear bones found in a cave.  (BLM)

Working Underground for the Bureau of Land Management

By James Goodbar

For the BLM, “underground resources” don’t always mean oil and gas or other minable minerals.  The BLM manages thousands of caves and the resources in them. 

A handful of individuals within the BLM and a host of volunteer groups, such as the National Speleological Society (NSS) and Cave Research Foundation (CRF), really love caves and want to help others understand the fragile nature of the world beneath their feet.  It’s the act of going caving and seeing things that most people could never imagine.  It’s making the first discovery of huge new underground rooms filled with wondrous, delicate formations that sparkle and twinkle as your light illuminates them, often for the very first time.  It’s crawling through that small space you thought no one else had ever been through and finding a collection of unbroken Anasazi pots and ceremonial artifacts.  It’s making that 180-foot rope drop in the darkness and finding the complete articulated skeleton of a long-extinct cave bear.  It’s hiking for miles through the hot, dry desert to the cave and going in to find a crystal-clear underground lake undisturbed by the harsh conditions above. 

Photograph of a man wearing a helmet crawling through a cave.
James Goodbar in a cave.  (BLM)
These experiences are what make caves and caving on our public lands so special—and such a challenge to manage.  The BLM has recognized the need to protect our karst ground-water resources, and has established new areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs) and national conservation areas (NCAs) to manage them.  Fort Stanton Cave was the BLM’s first cave designated as an NCA.  Its newly discovered Snowy River passage contains the world’s longest cave formation, the 30-foot-diameter snowy white calcite floor of an underground river that stretches for more than 5 miles.  This “calcite river” is still being explored, with no end in sight.

The BLM began proactive cave and karst management in 1962 when members of the NSS contacted Don Sawyer, the outdoor recreation planner in Roswell, New Mexico.  They informed him that some of BLM’s unique and fragile resources were being badly damaged and needed protection.  Don worked with them to develop cave management plans, design and install cave gates, and develop a permit system.  Then in 1977, the Roswell District hired the BLM’s first “cave specialists,” Buzz Hummel and Steve Fleming, whose jobs were to document known caves within the district and find new ones.  Since that time, the BLM has become a recognized leader in cave resources management. 

Throughout the 1980s, the BLM recognized caves in its resource management plans.  The Bureau played a vital role in crafting the language of the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988 and later teamed up with the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to draft the Department of the Interior’s regulations to implement the law.  In 1991, the BLM created its first national cave/karst program lead position, which I filled, working half time for the Washington Office and half time for the Carlsbad Field Office in New Mexico.  

Over the years, the BLM’s program accomplishments have served as a template for other federal agencies.  The BLM entered into national, regional, and local assistance agreements with the National Speleological Society and Cave Research Foundation and played a pivotal role in the successful development of the National Cave and Karst Management Symposia.  Much of BLM’s work benefits other federal land management agencies.  For example, the BLM organized training on cave and karst resources, pioneered a set of cave safety standards, and developed the first interagency agreement for cave and karst resources management, signed by five federal agencies.  The BLM also has developed a comprehensive set of mitigation measures for oil and gas drilling in sensitive karst areas, established cave/karst program leads in every BLM state, and shared cave management expertise with foreign countries, including China, Spain, Hungary, Switzerland, Greece, Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti.

Many of the caves we have known about for decades are being revisited and studied under a new set of lenses.  In cooperation with our speleological partners, we have made new scientific discoveries of resources found nowhere else on or under the earth.  Newly discovered microbes are giving us fresh options for developing cures of certain types of cancer, and new bioremediation products help break down oil spills and other organic solid wastes.  New methods for dating mineral deposits in caves (speleothems) are giving us important new information on climate change.

The BLM’s multiple-use mission is now fully 3-D!  Our history bears out the importance of our recognition of these fragile and unique underground resources.  Our future is only as bright as the knowledge and responsible management we carry with us into the darkness.

Jim Goodbar began caving with his family in central Texas when he was 9 years old.  Much of his 32-year career with the BLM has been spent developing the cave and karst management program.  Jim has explored caves in 16 foreign countries and is still an active caver.