To the Bat Cave

Environmental concerns are taking a backseat to fiscal concerns at Kartchner Caverns.

Despite years of environmental warnings, the "Big Room" of Kartchner Caverns State Park will open Nov. 11.

The Big Room was set to open in January, until state budget cuts squelched the idea. But the budget may be the reason Kartchner's Big Room is being quickly pressed into service: Kartchner, the flagship of state parks, generates nearly a third of the total Parks Department's annual revenue.

The unspoiled cave in the Whetstone Mountains, some 45 minutes southeast of Tucson, is considered one of the top caves in the world. But the ecology of this 2.5-mile cave is so fragile that two steel airlocks were installed to maintain the 99 percent humidity and 68 degree temperature --both critical to maintaining this "living cave."

The new, 1.7-acre Big Room is home to the world's most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk and serves as a maternity ward for more than 1,000 female Myotis velifer bats, which generate guano droppings that help other inhabitants of the cave to thrive.

Meanwhile, humidifying misters run around the clock; computer-programmed lighting shuts down between tours; and the cave is limited to 500 visitors per day--all to compensate for the heat and carbon dioxide, not to mention the lint, skin and hair tourists shed.

It hasn't worked.

With every tour, the fragile environment is exposed to more contaminants and dry air. And the misters may be causing additional damage by disrupting the delicate ecosystem, according to Rick Toomey, resource manager for Kartchner, who says they were installed before he was hired.

"Are we artificially trying to keep it wetter than it should be, given data from other caves in the area?" asks Toomey. "Ultimately, I would be in favor of getting rid of the misters,"

A year after Kartchner opened in 1999, the guano hit the fan.

When temperatures began to rise and humidity dropped at an alarming rate, the two men who discovered the cave blasted the state for failing to respond. Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts (who passed away April 1) discovered Kartchner in 1974 and kept it secret for 12 years while they worked with the property owners and the state to make it a park. The state bought the property in 1988, invested $31 million and opened the park in November 1999.

A three-year predevelopment report from the University of Arizona in 2000 recommended cutting back plans to open the "Big Room" to accommodate the nursery colony of the Myotis velifer bats--a species critical to the cave's living ecology. From May to mid-September, the cave serves as a maternity ward for female bats that roost in the lower caverns--the only bat of the cave's three species known to roost there.

According to the report, although these bats are not considered endangered or threatened, they only deliver one pup per year and roost only in Kartchner's specific climate conditions. As a result, the Big Room will be closed from April to October to avoid disturbing the bats.

Again, criticism came from within. In February 2000, the Boston Globe published an opinion piece by the state ecologist responsible for developing the cavern's Bat Management Plan that slammed the development of Kartchner Caverns. The state unceremoniously fired him, alleging he "sought to bring discredit and embarrassment to the state." With help of Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, he was reinstated in May 2000. He finally left to pursue his doctorate.

Still, Kartchner's 2002 annual report by Toomey found that in areas of the cave open to tours, temperatures had risen almost 4 degrees and humidity had dropped 3 percent. The next report will be released this month, and not much has changed.

"We are still at levels from last year. There's been some fluctuation, but incidental amounts," says Toomey.

The big question remains: development or climate?

"Right now, I would say the drought is very, very heavily involved, because we see warming and drying at undeveloped caves in the Whetstones," says Toomey. "But there certainly is an impact of development as well, and there is an impact from the interaction of the (climate) signals and development. They may be synergistic."

Red flags to slow development seem to be going unheeded, since the cave is a major income producer for the Parks Department, as well as the surrounding area's economy.

Last fiscal year, Kartchner's 186,818 visitors generated $2,389,813 from visitor fees alone. Compared to a total revenue from all 30 state parks of $7,667,000, the need for Kartchner's operation is evident, especially in light of the budget hit the agency took which forced temporarily closures of seven parks last year.

"The fact of the matter is, our budget is complicated," says Jay Ziemann, assistant director of the Parks Department.

"In 2000, our general operating fund was to be $8 million. That eventually went to zero last year, and then they put back about $3 million. They made that up by asking us to generate more revenues at the parks."

The revenue was always split between operational budgets and the capital development, primarily used for building Kartchner Caverns. But the Legislature changed that.

"What they did this year was eliminate that half, and said, 'You're not going to do any capital development; you're going to use all of that money for operations to cover what we sweep from the general fund,'" says Ziemann. "We're expected to generate more revenue, but they took away our ability to reinvest."

While the state's 30 parks generate more than $126 million in economic benefits to the surrounding areas, they're facing a myriad of backlogged maintenance projects --work that has been piling up during the past five years since they began channeling funding into building Kartchner Caverns.

Enter Kartchner's new "Big Room" tour. Limited to 17 tours per day of 15 people, at $22.95 a pop, that means up to another $40,000 per week for the agency during the five months the room is open.

What the parks department will do to guarantee the cave remains a living organism years from now will rely on a budget that allows stepped-up monitoring and tweaking what's already being done.

"It's my job to be concerned about these issues," says Toomey. "Both whether the changes are detrimental and whether some of the things we are doing, like misting to mitigate for changes, are actually mitigating changes that should be occurring to the cave."

To their credit, the State Parks Board blocked the construction of a $40 million resort near Kartchner in October 2001 for fear water runoff from the resort would destroy the delicate rock formations inside the caverns. When the hotel chain wouldn't sell the land, the state condemned the 160 acres using eminent domain.