Cave Restoration

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Visitors to Missouri caves often are spellbound by the natural beauty they find, but caves aren’t always as lovely as they could be. Many times they are missing delicate speleothems that have been destroyed or removed by previous visitors. Or, the caves may be marred by fires, digging, marking on walls, littering or the killing of cave wildlife - all of which are illegal.

Just as conservationists restore prairies, forests, glades, and wetlands, a few dedicated cavers and conservation biologists are working to restore abused caves. Much of the work in Missouri is carried out by caving groups, called "grottoes," the Missouri Caves and Karst Conservancy, the Conservation Department and other public agencies.

No one can completely repair all the damage to a cave. A broken stalactite or stalagmite that took millennia to form from dripping or flowing water may never regrow. The path the mineral-laden water took through the bedrock may now be naturally cemented, or conditions may be different than in the past.

It’s also difficult fix any darkening or inhibition of growth that may have resulted after porous rock has been contaminated by skin oils or mud. Cave restorers accept the fact that damage often occurs much more quickly than it can be fixed and that their efforts will never restore a cave to pristine condition. Even after we labor to clean spray-painted graffiti from a cave wall, the results are often unsatisfactory.

During restoration, we must be careful not to further damage cave resources. We don’t use harsh chemicals that can poison cave life, and we avoid using stiff wire brushes that might scratch the rock. We always start with gentle methods, like nylon scrub brushes and cave water, and see how successful we can be with muscle power.

Graffiti in caves goes back to prehistoric times and may be as important as a cave’s geologic features. In 1992, an enthusiastic and overzealous group of young restorers armed with wire brushes severely damaged 15,000-year-old bison paintings in a French cave.

Before restoration begins, we carefully explore the cave and document what we find with photographs. We then decide what graffiti should be removed and what should remain. Cave restorers don’t remove old pictographs, petroglyphs, signatures or anything else that might carry special historical significance.

If graffiti becomes cemented under a coating of calcite, we may leave it alone and let the calcite continue to cover it, or we may carefully grind it off. Another

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