Don’t Seal Up All Mines, Caves
Thursday, 24 August 2006 - DailyHerald
When four Utah County youths drowned in a water-filled cavern at the foot of Y Mountain, the call went out to seal up every nook and cranny in the wilderness.
Since then, Gollum's Cave has been sealed, and gates now guard access to the Nutty Putty caves in the West Desert. But there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of caves and old mines that are still open to anyone with a desire to venture in.
But it's important to remember that every opening in the earth is not a death trap.
The sheer number of abandoned mines in Utah makes closing each and every one of them a daunting task. Mark Mesch, director of the state's abandoned mine reclamation program, said there are approximately 17,000 to 20,000 abandoned mines scattered throughout Utah, and each mine has multiple entrances and ventilation shafts. Mesch said one in the Oquirrhs has 72 entrances that need to be sealed up.
Since 1975, Utah has required mine owners to assume responsibility for closing mines after the claim has played out. But that does not cover the mines that were started before then, and many of the companies that operated mines no longer exist.
A federal tax enacted on coal mines in 1977 finances reclamation efforts for the abandoned holes. In Utah, the tax generates $1.5 million a year, enough to close about 600 mine entrances a year.
At least with a mine, reclamation workers know where to look. Caves are another matter: they exist wherever Nature decides to put them.
Utah spelunkers estimate that there are 500 natural caves in Utah, with possibly many more just waiting to be discovered. Some caves are on public lands while others are on private property, making the question of who bears responsibility for closing them more difficult.
Let's make it a little easier: not all mines and caves should be closed. Caves give scientists and hobbyists alike a glimpse inside a living planet and offer a chance to better understand the forces that shape the surface landscape. Many wonders exist only underground. Timpanogos Cave and its beautiful rock formations, for example, draw thousands of visitors each year in a controlled environment that has lost much of it natural beauty and wild attraction over many decades.
In Park City, one of the silver mines was turned into a tourist venue, giving visitors a glimpse at the industry that founded the ski resort community.
Nutty Putty Cave illustrates one workable solution to the problem with caves. The once-popular site is now regulated by the Timpanogos Grotto club. This ensures that those who go into the cave have the proper leadership and equipment to safely navigate and return to the surface.
Spelunking groups are working on programs for Scout troops and other organizations to educate them about caves and their potential dangers. Utah's Bureau of Land Management field office is also working on a safety campaign.
The BLM should focus its closing efforts on the mines that are truly dangerous to amateur cave explorers. Let the rest remain as a source of adventure.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A4.