IT'S JUST A hole in the ground. Arizona has a lot of them. But Karchner Caverns is the most spectacular natural negative space to grace the state since the Grand Canyon. It's already being listed among the top 10 caves in the world, because of its unique formations and pristine condition.
Turning this underground wonderland in the Whetstone Mountains into the major tourist attraction it could be has become an expensive and time-consuming task for the State Parks Department. More than 10 years after acquiring the property in a supersecret land deal, opening day is still nowhere in sight.
"No one wants to see this park open more than we do," says State Parks Director Ken Travous. He has good reason, because Karchner has become a money pit, consuming vast quantities of his department's resources.
Travous has been with the project since he became director in 1987 and is one of the biggest advocates for the preservation of the cave. When he came to the job, one report listed the department 49th in the country, and the Parks Department was looking for a rock to crawl under. And then, fortunately, Karchner became available, the largest project the department had ever attempted.
"We don't have a prior administration to blame if we screw this up," Travous says, only half joking. He now spends two or three days a week at Karchner, helping manage the project, looking for ways to streamline the work and make everything as efficient as possible.
Karchner was supposed to be the parks system's cash cow, supporting development throughout the state with fees from the estimated 100,000 to 150,000 visitors a year eager to see a pristine wet cave.
"Wet cave." That's the problem and the magic of Karchner: It's a wet cave, alive and still growing in a complex interplay of geology, hydrology, weather and other variables.
Humans had never walked inside Karchner Caverns until 1974, when Tucsonans Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen discovered it. Preserving the cave from a variety of threats, including vandalism, shoddy development and its own popularity, has been the goal ever since.
Nature, unhindered by the Americans with Disabilities Act or OSHA regulations, built the caverns to its own fractal logic. But turning that raw material into a state park without damaging the cave in the process has been complex and expensive. Developing the cave is akin to capturing King Kong, and rather than plopping him on a stage, you take his natural ecosystem, and unobtrusively build fully wheelchair-accessible observation points for all of the ape's activities and interesting body parts, while hoping he never notices you watching.
Back in 1995, Karchner Caverns State Park was scheduled to open in November 1997. That date was pushed back in January 1997, when it was apparent that construction was progressing more slowly than anticipated.
"There was no projected budget or timeline until January 1995," Travous says. "We had no idea how much trouble the tunnels were going to be."
The main culprit for the delays was the tunneling and now the difficulty of the work inside the cave.
"I should have said back in '95 that the cave will open in 2010 and cost $100 million, and then everyone would have been happy when we came in under budget and ahead of schedule," Travous says.
Park officials now steadfastly refuse to speculate when the cave will be ready for public viewing. They concede that at the present pace, it could be two or three more years or even longer, before the 3,500 feet of cave trails and hidden lighting are completed.
"We are using the resources allocated to us," is all that Bob Burnett, project manager for cavern development, will say. "We will open in the future."
Officials cite the frustrating difficulties of transforming the near pristine underground area into a place where as many as 600 tourists each day can safely and casually stroll without bumping into each other or damaging the fragile cave environment.
IN THE MEANTIME, the above-ground infrastructure is almost complete. Parking, power lines, water, sewage, a campground and nature trails are ready for visitors. A 19,000-square-foot Visitors Center has been completed. Exhibits explaining the cave are being finished. The turnstiles are installed.
But the Visitor Center and campgrounds will not open, officials say, until the cave itself is ready, further reducing potential income.
Costs of the delay are straining the entire State Parks system. Funding for Karchner Caverns comes from legislative allocation, through the Heritage Fund and through user fees from the other state parks.
Remember all that cash collected at Picacho Peak when you went to see the El Niño-inspired wildflowers? Right now, that money is disappearing into Karchner.
When completed, the project is expected to be over budget by nearly $10 million, according to a recent Arizona Republic article, a figure that officials do not dispute. Originally estimated in 1995 to cost $21 million, the Karchner project, they now estimate, will be around $30 million, assuming nothing else untoward happens during construction.
To illustrate what can go wrong, test bores for one section of the tunnel did not show a hidden fault line that keeps collapsing the roof. Eventually, construction slowed to inches a day at a cost of $9,000 a linear foot.
Nonetheless, although the Legislature has said they want Karchner open in a year, no one is sure what to do if that doesn't happen.
"I'm disappointed, but not concerned," says Sen. Gus Arzberger, D-Dist. 8, says. Arzberger's district includes the cave, and he also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. "I believe they're doing everything they can. If you destroy it, we won't get it back. It's going to pay back a hundredfold over time," he says confidently.
Because of the difficulties of maintaining a low-impact construction site within the cave, officials aren't even sure how much of the work has been completed and how much more there is to do. One estimate is that half of the of trails have been roughed in. But officials concede some of the most difficult work still lies ahead in the Throne Room, the most distant room from the entrance. They also admit that no part of the trail has been completely finished, and planning for permanent lighting has just begun.
WORK UNDERGROUND IS slow and deliberate. On a recent day, it consisted of lugging 600 feet of 8-inch-thick high-pressure hose into the cave in 20-foot sections, locking it all together, backing a concrete truck up and pumping cement to cover an 8-square-yard area of trail. Then workers flushed the hose and carried it back out. The whole procedure takes the crew about half the shift. And this is the speedy procedure. In many places, they have to carry the cement in wheelbarrows to the work site deep within the cave.
Two entry tunnels have been completed. Now what used to be a 45-minute crawl for workers is down to a few minutes of walking upright.
Workers are monitored regularly for exposure to naturally occurring radon gas. And when entering the cave, workers tag in, a procedure that could help identify individual victims in the event of a collapse or other disaster. Crews work in two shifts of 34 people to minimize impact on the cave.
The only power tools allowed are hydraulic hammer drills and electric saws with carbide blades. Reinforced steel rods must be carried in ready to use, since welding is forbidden in the cave. No gas-powered tools that might create fumes or spill oil are permitted inside. Most of the work is done by hand, pick and shovel. Debris is hauled out rather than redeposited in the cave. Debris from the Big Room, which has evidence of animal habitation, is searched for bones, such as those of the 10,000-year-old Giant Sloth found in the cave last year. Plastic covers the more fragile and extensive formations to protect them from dust or accidental damage. A legislative tour several years ago broke a unique formation shaped like the foot pad of the Lunar Excursion Module, so there is a deliberately careful pace to the work.
To stabilize loose aggregate walls, rocks are removed by hand and individually and invisibly cemented back into place. A house-sized boulder slipped during tunneling, requiring the instillation of large concrete supports before work could continue.
Yet the slow, labor-intensive work has become deeply personal for the workers, many of whom volunteered for the chance to be a part of the creation of Karchner.
"I'm convinced that we can't work the people in there any harder than they already are," Travous says.
TO UNDERSTAND THE fiscal drain of Karchner on the rest of Arizona's parks system, visit Oracle State Park. Oops, you can't--it's not open to the public.
Oracle State Park and Center for Environmental Education is a 4,000-acre property donated to the state in 1986 by the Kannally family. Although acquired before Karchner, Oracle's development was postponed to greenlight the caverns. Facilities at the Oracle site, 36 miles north of Tucson on the back road to Mt. Lemmon, include the historical Kannally Ranch house, some ramadas, parking lots, trails and roads. But a visitors' center and other facilities costing millions, which officials insist are necessary to open the park, have not gone beyond the wishful-thinking stage.
Jay Ream, southern regional manager for state parks, notes, "We're taxing almost all the talent in our agency getting Karchner open. Karchner has turned out to be larger than expected and more difficult than we ever expected. Oracle has had to be put on the back burner."
The plan is for Oracle State Park is to use the unique property with its extensive wildlife habitat as a teaching tool by focusing on environmental awareness, rather than duplicating nearby Catalina State Park as a traditional campground/picnic area.
Oracle recently opened for limited environmental education programming. It will serve approximately 5,000 fee-waivered school kids a year on field trips. But if the park were fully open, it could serve as many as 50,000 paying visitors, and along with Biosphere2, would enhance the town of Oracle as a prime destination for the growing number of eco-tourists. Because of Karchner, Oracle State Park will continue to be closed to the general public for at least four or five more years.
RANDY TUFTS, WHOSE singular goal has been to preserve Karchner since its discovery, says he and Tenen think the state is doing a great job.
"The cave is in good hands, as far as we're concerned," Tufts says.
That there's a cave to preserve at all is due to years of careful work and secrecy by Tufts and Tenen.
Tufts has a unique relationship with the cave. Now nearing 50, he recently completed his doctoral degree in interplanetary geology at UA, where he's studying Jupiter's moon, Europa, as part of the Galileo Project. But Karchner Caverns, originally called Xanadu by the two discoverers, is never far from his thoughts.
"Yeah, I talk to the cave," he admits. "It's like talking to your dog or something. The cave god has been at work throughout this project, as if it were orchestrating its own care by tapping people and saying, 'You're gonna take care of me.'
"We feel responsible for it, and being the discoverers, we get to exert some influence. What I hope is that once large numbers of people start seeing it, the cave will develop its own constituency. When people go into the Throne Room, they'll see a section by the big, wide mud floor where there's only one trail that we ever walked along. There are large areas which will have never been touched. That's an important object lesson."
"I'd decided in high school that I wanted to find a cave," Tufts says. He almost found Karchner when he was 19, which he admits probably would have destroyed it. At that time, he would have told his caving friends, everyone and his brother would have trooped into the cave, its virgin qualities forever destroyed through carelessness and vandalism.
At 26, when, as he says, the cave revealed itself to him, he immediately felt the responsibility to protect it.
The care that Tufts and Tenen took during their years of stewardship includes not straying from routes they marked with Popsicle sticks and even walking without shoes to reduce damage from footprints.
Tufts and Tenen, who is now a successful businessman with several Alphagraphics stores, managed to keep the cave a tightly held secret for years, a monumental task in the close-knit spelunking community.
"We'd seen other caves be substantially destroyed by random visitation by thoughtless people," Tufts says. "We knew what would happen if word got out about something this big.
"If this had been in the middle of nowhere, we could have probably just kept it quiet. But Karchner is so close to the road."
That road, Highway 90, less than a mile from the cave, made the cave a candidate for salvation by doing the very opposite of keeping it a secret, a concept of "conservation through commercialism." They decided that the only way to protect it was to develop it as a show cave.
They approached the owner of the land, St. David educator and rancher James Karchner. He and his family agreed with the need to preserve the unique site. Realizing they lacked the resources to develop it themselves, the Karchner family quietly offered to sell the land to the State of Arizona.
They were encouraged by Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who surreptitiously visited the site with Tufts and Tenen. That occasion was marked by creating a special governor-sized entry route the width of a trash can, henceforth known as the Babbitt Hole.
Babbitt left office for his ill-fated run for president with the sale still unsigned. Gov. Evan Mecham was deliberately not informed of the impending deal by the state for fear he might somehow manage to screw it up. Gov. Rose Mofford, considered more stable and thus informed not long after she took office, signed the bill transferring the land and creating the park in 1988, just ahead of breaking news reports about the cave's existence.
"It's all based on Randy and Gary's vision," says Park Manager Jeff Dexter. "We certainly could go through this a lot faster if we weren't trying to be careful. Years ago, those would have been acceptable techniques. Everything is being to done make the cave safe and accessible while protecting the workers. It would have been easier to build this with stairs, but access was an issue for us."
The decision to make the entire inside of the cave wheelchair accessible was "the right thing to do," Travous explains. "We didn't have to make the cave as fully handicapped accessible. It was a choice we made. We could have met the requirement for 'reasonable accommodation' by getting people to the Throne Room overlook."
THERE ARE A lot of caves," says Jeff Dexter. "If people want to see a cave, they can go almost anywhere to do that. But in this case, they're going to see one that's in near-natural condition. So if you only see the cave in terms of economic development, it's in everyone's best interests to keep it in good shape."
Compare Karchner to Colossal Cave southeast of Tucson. It's dry, dead and historically vandalized, with steep stairs, visible wiring at every turn, defaced with broken stalactite stumps from decades of souvenir hunters. And Colossal is considered a pretty good cave. Karchner won't put it out of business, but Colossal will suffer deeply in any comparison to its colorful, living sister which has been preserved with an almost religious fanaticism. An estimated 85 percent of Karchner will never have been walked on when it opens.
Benson, the sleepy town of 5,000 on the San Pedro River, is gearing up for the resulting tourist largess. Billboards along I-10 already tout Karchner Caverns, even though it is a non-destination. The town is building hotels and more fast-food franchises. An airport with a 4,000-foot runway will open next year.
"We're anxious to get the caves open," says Lynn Stephens, executive director of the Benson Chamber of Commerce. "There are a lot of businesses who are banking on the caverns. We don't want to lose our small-town atmosphere, but at the same time, we want the tourists. Karchner is going to be the icing on the cake for Benson."
The park's reservation system will allow for management of the large volume of anticipated visitors. It will also preclude some walk-up visitors, especially on weekends, forcing overnight stays, much to the delight of Benson merchants. Details have yet to be worked out, since the carrying capacity of the cave is unknown.
The cave's preservation will continue to be the primary goal after the park opens, even if that means limiting the number of underground visitors.
Naturally, the potential for large numbers of visitors has created concerns, including problems of temperature increases, algae growth, elevated carbon dioxide levels. Every sneeze or drop of sweat that falls deposits non-native material that, multiplied by 100,000, could be a threat.
"We don't what the limits of the cave are," says Travous. "We don't know what happens if the temperature of the cave goes up 2 degrees."
"We have three carrying capacities to consider," he adds. "We have the limits of the above-ground infrastructure, which is around 150,000 visitors a year.
"The environmental carrying capacity is how much can the cave take, the heat generated by the people, the carbon dioxide. We'll have to study what that capacity is, but indications are that caves are pretty resilient.
"A third carrying capacity is psychological--at what point does the experience diminish with the number of people that you're taking through."
Access to the cave may also have to be adjusted to accommodate bats who live in the Big Room several months a year.
ENTERING KARCHNER CAVERNS through the airlock door, the atmosphere immediately changes. Relative humidity is nearly 100 percent at a constant temperature of 69 degrees Fahrenheit. It's a sub-tropical environment in the desert. The darkness is all enveloping, cut only by the hard-hat lamps. Rocks are strewn along the floor and there are large muddy areas. Boulders have been cut for trails, but navigating still requires scrambling. Hundreds of tiny stalactites decorate the ceiling. Broken soda straw formations stick in the mud where they fell centuries ago. Calcite flowstone seeps from fractures.
There is something primal about being inside the earth, especially in a place that has been treated so reverently. It's like being in a windowless cathedral, with it's vast boomy sound and the sacred feeling of enclosure.
A listing of the cave's geological features reads like poetry: coral pipes, blood-red travertine, moonstone, cave pearls, canopy overflow, angel's wing, quartz needles, gypsum cotton, rootsicles. In addition to the usual stalactites and stalagmites, there is the 51-foot Kubla Kahn column, a world-record 21-foot soda straw, and an extensive menu of bacon drapery, turnip shields and fried-egg formations.
Back in daylight, the Visitors Center overlooks the placid valley with the Dragoon, Huachuca, and Mule Mountains visible in the distance.
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