Caves elicit a profound sense of fascination and wonder. Their often incredulous formations, strange forms of animal life, and archaeological treasures compel us to explore and admire them. Yet entry into many caves in the Ozarks region is now prohibited to all but the privileged few. Reasons include the bat disease white-nose syndrome (although little evidence exists that humans actually vector the disease), landowners concerned about liability issues, and even overzealous cavers.
Limestone caves form slowly over many centuries, as water dissolves the parent rock, leaving behind the precipitates that result in cave formations. They are among the most fragile ecosystems on the planet. A single act of vandalism may mar the natural beauty of a cave for centuries. Thus many cavers believe the best way to protect a cave is to construct a gate across the entrance and keep everyone (else) out. Some go so far as to criticize the publication of cave images (even if no cave locations are given), for the reason that vandals may be more likely to target specific caves if they know there are formations to vandalize.
While this may be true in some cases, in my opinion, isolated acts of vandalism do not represent the greatest threat to caves. The greatest threat to caves is ignorance and apathy of the general population, which could result in the ultimate failure to protect the entire cave ecosystem, including the aboveground watershed. If we are not allowed to explore caves (the vast majority of the non-commercial caves featured on this site are currently closed to all but the privileged few), and experience the natural beauty of this unique environment for ourselves, how likely are we to make the sacrifices necessary to protect and preserve these caves for future generations? Will we care enough to prevent development, dumping of garbage, contamination of groundwater, and generalized degradation of the ecosystem for a cave we may never enter? Or will it be a case of “out of sight, out of mind”?
In this spirit I present these images of a few of the caves of one of the great karst regions of the world, so that others may vicariously experience their beauty, and be proponents of their protection and preservation, until the day that these natural wonders are free and open for exploration once again.