Playtime is over in the ecologically delicate caves of the Deschutes National Forest.
The forest on Tuesday released new draft rules to prohibit activities that are harming fragile ecosystems in its approximately 700 caves.
Campfires, chalking, pooping and partying are damaging the homes of the many plants, animals and insects that live in Oregon’s caves. This new set of prohibitions combines several rules made to protect the caves throughout the years while adding new restrictions.
Deschutes National Forest public affairs officer Jean Nelson-Dean said the intention is to protect these natural wonders from further irreversible damage.
“When you do something in a cave, it doesn’t recover,” Nelson-Dean said. “It’s not like something above the surface that can tend to heal or recover.”
Caves in the Deschutes National Forest have for decades taken a fair amount of abuse — graffiti, garbage, human waste. Though Lava River Cave near Bend has been closed this year, Nelson-Dean said people in the past have treated it “like a latrine.”
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Cleaning a cave is no small task.
In 2019, volunteers from a coalition of groups in Central Oregon cleaned decades of graffiti off the walls of Boyd Cave, a 1,600-foot lava tube southeast of Bend.
Neil Marchington, an expert caver and chairman of the Oregon High Desert Grotto, said it took five days to clean the whole thing. The volunteers used a commercial-grade sandblaster to shoot chemically inert rock dust at the cave walls to gently scrape away the paint. They also cleared 50 pounds of trash.
The result was, after years of neglect, a sparkling clean cave. “I’ve never seen Boyd Cave look this clean,” he said.
This October, though, another group of seven volunteers, including Marchington, spent five and a half hours blasting away new tags.
“Every time somebody spray-paints a cave, they’re taking away from the experience that the next person could have,” Marchington said.
The Deschutes National Forest saw a 66% increase in visitors from 2013 to 2018, which coincides with steady population growth in Central Oregon. With that comes added strain on its natural wonders.
The new rules are intended to mitigate some of the adverse effects of those crowds. They prohibit fires, camping, smoking, tagging, chalking, slack-lining, glittering (it happens) and more.
The rules apply to all caves in the Deschutes National Forest. Additional restrictions apply to popular destinations like Lava River Cave, Skeleton Cave and Hidden Forest Cave. You can read a full list of prohibitions here.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act, people who previously commented on the proposal during the scoping period or the public comment period on the environmental analysis can object to the draft decision for the next 45 days.