Front Royal Grotto Cave Conservation

By Janet Tinkham and Nuch Songsasen

Front Royal Grotto has a strong commitment to cave conservation. We have participated in many conservation projects including cave clean up, cave gating, building of karst trails and ground water education activities. Our conservation efforts have been recognized by the National Speleological Society (NSS) when FRG was presented with the NSS Certificate of Merit at the Convention 2000 for the conservation and protection of the Riverside Karst Area in Warren County, Va. 

During the past 15 years our members have organized and participated in several cave clean ups (e.g., Allen's, Bowden, Island Ford, Sinkhole from Hell, Ogden's and Donaldson caves), many of which were sponsored by the Virginia Region (VAR). These clean ups involved trash pickup from inside and outside of the caves and graffiti removal. A major clean up was at Allen's cave which involved removing enough rubble and trash from the entrance, which filled a small dumpster.

One of the major conservation efforts is cave gating. The grotto received a grant from the Cave Conservancy of the Virginias (CCV) to gate two local caves in the Front Royal area: Allen's and Front Royal Caverns. After the entrance was physically reopened in 2001 Allen's cave was heavily vandalized. On a cold and rainy weekend in October 2005, the grotto, with the help of VAR members Craig Hindman, Carol Tiderman and Jim McConkey, completed the gating of Allen's cave. However, local individuals still managed to break in by digging out rocks underneath the gate. In spring 2006, we went back and put cement on the bottom of the gate to prevent further vandalism. Only six months after that, Janet Tinkham and Tom Tucker went into the cave and discovered at least four species of bats inhabit in Allen's and that the cave is recovering! 

On June 28, 2008 FRG finally finished the gating of Front Royal Caverns, which was started four years previous. Several years ago, FRG received a grant from the CCV to gate Front Royal Caverns. The primary reason for gating the cave is for the protection of the Madison Cave Isopod, which was discovered in the cave in the 1990s. The Madison Cave isopod, Antrolana lira, is a subterranean freshwater crustacean endemic in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. It was listed as a threatened species in November 1982. With the encroaching development in the area and already high visitation by locals, the decision was made to gate the cave to reduce the threat to the groundwater habitat. The Caverns was initially gated the summer of 2004; yet, the gating was not completed at that time. A number of events took place to delay completion for the next four years. The property changed hands from private to county ownership, and while the new Skyline High School was being built, no one was allowed on site for safety reasons. Finally, the site was released and we were given permission to go back and complete the gating.

Beyond gating the Cavern, the grotto volunteers also built steps and a hand railing to allow safer access to the cave by high school students and teachers. The county is very proud of owning a cave and has ideas of developing an outdoor classroom to be utilized in conjunction with the environmental/conservation during the school year. There are many above ground karst features on the property, which include a spring and sinkholes. The possibility of taking the students into the entrance of the cave will add to an extremely beneficial learning experience.

In addition to Allen's and Front Royal caves, grotto members also participated in gating at Schoolhouse, Silers and Sinnett caves.

One of the grotto goals is to educate the public on karst geology. We obtained a grant from The Pure Water Forum in 2000 to purchase a Karst Demonstration Model that will be used to educate school groups and to display at public gatherings such as local festivals and environmental forums. We've also assisted the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation with a groundwater study that involved dye tracing of streams and documenting locations of caves and sinkholes in the project area. We have also accompanied cave biologists on trips to inventory the critters that are living in the caves. Furthermore, the grotto constructed a karst trail/nature trail (involving clearing of the brush and laying of the mulch) at Crystal Cavern and has started to build another one at the Skyline Caverns in Front Royal. These trails will give visitors a chance to identify surface features such as sinkholes and learn how they are directly connected to the underground.

Another conservation project the grotto participates in is the Virginia Adopt a Highway Program. At least once a year we pick up trash along Fort Valley road where grotto members regularly do vertical practice. 

Last year Front Royal Grotto hosted cave week at Crystal Caverns in Strasburg, Va., aiming at raising public awareness on conservation of caves and creatures living in them. The event featured Breakfast with Bats, a presentation on Issues of Karst and Cave Preservation and candle light tours of the cavern.

Over the years we have made numerous donations to conservation organizations such as West Virginia Cave Conservancy, Bat World NOVA, Bat Conservation International, American Cave Conservation Association and many others. Part of the proceeds from the pancake breakfast we provide at VAR goes to these donations. 

The Front Royal Grotto follows the NSS's Conservation Policy

The NSS beliefs are:

— Caves have unique scientific, recreational and scenic values
— These values are endangered by both carelessness and intentional vandalism
— These values, once gone, cannot be recovered
— The responsibility for protecting caves must be formed by those who study and enjoy them.

Accordingly, the intention of the Society is to work for the preservation of caves with a realistic policy supported by effective programs for: the encouragement of self-discipline among cavers; education and research concerning the causes and prevention of cave damage; and special projects, including cooperation with other groups similarly dedicated to the conservation of natural areas. Specifically: All contents of a cave -- formations, life, and loose deposits -- are significant for their enjoyment and interpretation.

Therefore, caving parties should leave a cave as they find it. They should provide means for the removal of waste; limit marking to a few, small, and removable signs as are needed for surveys; and, especially, exercise extreme care not to accidentally break or soil formations, disturb life forms or unnecessarily increase the number of disfiguring paths through an area.

Scientific collection is professional, selective, and minimal. The collecting of mineral or biological material for display purposes, including previously broken or dead specimens, is never justified, as it encourages others to collect and destroy the interest of the cave.

The Society encourages projects such as:

— Establishing cave preserves
— Placing entrance gates where appropriate
— Opposing the sale of speleothems
— Supporting effective protective measures
— Cleaning and restoring over-used caves
— Cooperating with private cave owners by providing them knowledge about their cave and assisting them in protecting their cave and property from damage during cave visits
— Encouraging commercial cave owners to make use of their opportunity to aid the public in understanding caves and the importance of their conservation.

Where there is reason to believe that publication of cave locations will lead to vandalism before adequate protection can be established, the Society will oppose such publication.

It is the duty of every Society member to:

Take personal responsibility for spreading a consciousness of the cave conservation problem to each potential user of caves. Without this, the beauty and value of our caves will not long remain with us.