The Secret Cave

This history of Kartchner Caverns' discovery and preservation should be required reading in schools

Arizona has always been a kind of open-air laboratory for the seemingly antithetical philosophy of conservation through commercialization.

The only way the state's natural wonders could be saved from the mining, ranching, agricultural and other development interests was to take them off the table, mostly through the auspices of the federal government, and open them to tourists. Otherwise, treasures like the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest--which was nearly picked clean of its swirling-color rock artifacts before federal protection came along--would have been used as most of the other land in the state has been: in the interests of an economy based on extraction, reclamation and growth.

Still today, conservation advocates, even those interested in setting aside tracts of Arizona as wilderness, wrap their arguments in the clothing of commerce, appealing to the tourism industry with promises of overnight stays and per-day spending averages. And while one wishes sometimes that it could be different--that we didn't need to get something back out of every scrap of desert and plateau--this strategy has mostly worked.

It remains to be seen, however, how well this strategy has worked when it comes to Kartchner Caverns here in Southern Arizona. As writer Neil Miller makes clear in his fascinating new history of the popular state park near Benson, opening the otherworldly cave beneath the Whetstone Mountains to the public was merely the lesser of several evils that could have happened to the living underground world, and it was a decision that came only after years of almost laughable secrecy on the part of the cave's discoverers, Gary Tenen and the late Randy Tufts.

One comes away from Miller's page-turner with a reverence, almost an unalloyed love for Tenen, Tufts and the Kartchner family of St. David, a huge Mormon clan that owned the land under which the young spelunkers discovered the cave they called Xanadu in November 1974. Having seen the damage done to other Arizona caves by vandals and unethical cavers, Tenen and Tufts, from the very first day they shimmied through a blowhole into the dripping and humid wonderland, kept their discovery a secret, and they went to extremes to seal loose lips even after, some 12 years later, the Arizona State Parks department agreed to purchase the land and develop the cave as a state park. The secrecy reached a kind of absurd extreme when the two cavers made a state-parks official wear a blindfold as they drove him to the site. Tufts and Tenen even made their friends and girlfriends sign an airtight secrecy agreement.

For a brief time, Tenen and Tufts, who spent a big portion of their adult lives shepherding their beloved cave toward permanent conservation, thought of developing the cave themselves, in partnership with the Kartchners, as a privately operated "show cave." But the Kartchners backed out at the last minute, unwilling to invest the money in what was a decidedly risky enterprise. Eventually, the family sold the land to the state for just less than $2 million in 1988, and the state spent the next 11 years and more than $30 million developing the park.

There are dozens of surprises in this book, not least of which is that the whole deal came about after what has to be the most positive, civic-minded backroom deal the state Legislature has ever pulled off. The bill to acquire the cave was pushed through both houses during the strange days of the Evan Mecham impeachment by a few Republican legislative leaders who knew and held tight the secret; it wasn't until a week or so before the final vote that the press got the story.

Tufts, who died in 2002 at just 53, Tenen, the Kartchners and all the other secrecy-minded officials who worked on the Kartchner project are true Arizona heroes, and Miller's book should be required reading in high school Arizona history courses.

Whether or not opening the cave to the public was the best thing for it may never be known. There are ongoing concerns about the relative dryness of the wet and living cave, which needs a constant state of 99 percent humidity to survive, but one wonders if sealing the cave forever and never allowing any of us to see it would have been the best thing--or even possible. If it was discovered once, couldn't it be discovered again, possibly by cavers not so conservation-minded as Tenen and Tufts?

Randy Tufts, Miller writes, worried about such matters until the day he died. Balance, it seems, is the most elusive goal of all.

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