Arizona Tries Tourism to Save "Living Cave"

April 19, 2005

In 1974 cool, moist air billowed from a crack in Arizona's sunbaked desert and lured cave hunters Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen underground. There, glistening formations of rock hung from the ceiling like icicles and sprouted from the ground. The explorers were overwhelmed. They'd discovered a so-called living cave.

Tufts and Tenen were the first humans known to set foot in the Kartchner Caverns, which today are among the world's top show caves.

Kenneth Travous is the executive director of Arizona State Parks in Phoenix. He said the discovery of the caverns burdened Tufts and Tenen with an obligation to protect the underground labyrinth from ruin.

When Arizona State Parks staff people first saw the caves, "the same thing happened to us that happened to them," Travous said. "You look at it and you get overwhelmed with the responsibility of it."

The caverns are "living," a term used to describe active caves. "The cave formations still have water on them, they're still continuing to grow," said Rick Toomey, a staff scientist at the Kartchner Caverns in Benson.

Rainwater from the surface seeps through the ground, absorbing calcium carbonate along the way. Inside the cave, the mixture drips from the ceiling. As it hardens, it forms the icicle-like stalactites on the ceiling and sproutlike stalagmites on the floor.

With the exception of small cracks, the caverns are closed off to the outside world. The isolation allows the caverns to maintain an average temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius) and near 99 percent humidity.

Public Protection

Tufts and Tenen were concerned the arid desert air would dry out the caverns if the cracks were widened and people clambered through the murky, still depths. They kept their discovery secret for four years.

In 1978 the cavers shared the secret with the Kartchner family, the caverns' rightful landowners. Subsequently, the Arizona State Parks department staff, including Travous, was alerted to the existence of the caverns.

"What it came down to was [that] the best way to protect it was to develop it as a show cave. That's not something you would typically think would come to mind," Travous said. "But they did."

The parks department announced the discovery to the world in 1988. In 1999, 25 years after Tufts and Tenen first felt that cool, moist breeze, the public was invited to marvel at the glistening formations.

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