Carlsbad Caverns add Immeasurably to Life’s Meaning

Matlocks’ Pinch in the Hall of White Giant tour
Photo courtesy National Park Service
Matlocks' Pinch

Recently I wriggled my way, not into a cave, but into a goals-setting retreat of Carlsbad Caverns National Park staff - three long days trying to articulate the park’s mission, renew its vision, turn sweeping desires into measurable goals, tasks, and work assignments. We were 24, nearly a quarter of the park staff, including superintendent, division heads, rangers, maintenance men, administrative aides. We talked much about team building, but the underlying theme is how we balance the contradictory mandates of preserving the park’s fragile caves with that of encouraging tourist visitation.

In this room are those who control access to the park’s great caves - including world-class Lechuguilla, the park’s 85 other wild caves, the ornate off-limits rooms that lie beyond the paved visitors’ trail in the Cavern - and who approve or deny academic research in the park. Caves are not renewable resources; once damaged, they are damaged for eternity. Every staffer is committed to preservation, but all are remarkably supportive of visitation. Their thrust is to make each visitor’s experience as awe-inspiring and educational as they believe their own time spent in the caverns has been.

One morning we spend an hour brain-storming ways to better reach school children. By and large, park staff define tourists and school children - not general Carlsbad residents - as the park’s primary constituents. During a break, I bring up the park’s relationship to its gateway city.

I’m deluged with a torrent of comments: mostly, “they” (Carlsbad) don’t take advantage of the park; Carlsbad businessmen and political leaders support the park only because they’re after the tourist dollar; they don’t respond to our appeal for volunteers. Oh, sure, the town harbors a core of dedicated cavers, staffers admit, but by and large, Carlsbad doesn’t really appreciate this place. Almost to a man - and woman - the rangers do appreciate it. Each work day brings a wonderful experience. Some rangers spend their days off caving.

I point out that local leaders have been an effective political force in fighting for the caverns. In 1968, for instance, the Interior Department ordered all national parks to close two days a week to save money. Carlsbad fought the order. We lobbied Congress. We raised local funds to pay park personnel. Interior reversed its decision.

In December 1995, the Caverns got caught in the budget tussle between Congress and the White House. Interior closed all national parks. Carlsbad rallied. Again we raised money to pay park staff salaries. We gathered federal and state officials and hammered out an agreement. The park reopened before Washington resolved its stalemate.

A park service division manager counters with the cry that the city’s interest is only economic, to keep the tourist dollars flowing.

He does have evidence. For years the Park Service has wanted to remove the Cavern’s 70-year-old underground lunch room, run by a local businessman. They argue it’s neither “necessary nor appropriate.” Each year our congressman attaches a rider to the NPS authorization bill that prohibits them from closing it.

A week later I sit in on a Chamber of Commerce task force seeking ways to reverse declining park visitation. We had 857,276 visitors in 1976. Visitation was up and down through the 1980s, but since 1976 has dropped 38 percent. It has fallen for seven years running. Chamber staff and tourist-dependent members, primarily motel people, want Park Service help in stemming the tide.

No one knows the reason. We think American recreational habits have changed, that families prefer theme parks to national parks. We have read somewhere that with more disposable income, people vacation at more costly destinations; they would rather fly to Disney World than hike into Carlsbad Caverns. “OK, then, let’s raise park entry fees,” one of the group jokingly suggests.

Our answers: We suggest better brochures, advertising campaigns, studies of those who don’t come to find out why. One guy wants to tap the Japanese and Mexican markets. Another pooh-poohs that idea. We try to figure out ways to woo bus tour companies.

The talk is of tourist dollars, plain and simple. The park service reps don’t mention their goals to beef up education, or preserve the park’s precious cave formations. Those concerns would be deemed irrelevant here. In 90 minutes, little gets resolved. We do nothing to solve the problem, nor to bring tourism promoters and caverns management together.

Later, I’m rethinking the relationship between town and park. One of the rangers had expounded on how much more the residents of Estes Park, Colorado, use their park, Rocky Mountain National Park, than Carlsbad does its Cavern. My brother and nephew visited Carlsbad recently. We sent them to the Caverns for a day. Two weeks later, my wife’s Rotary club sponsored a weekend retreat for 50 foreign exchange students. They sent them to the caverns. No local Rotary Club members went with them.

There’s something of perception here, and definition. We define Carlsbad Caverns as a passive experience - we come, we look, we ooh and aah, and after we’ve taken the main trail, we check this site off our list of things we want to do in life.

We return to Rocky Mountain National Park because we want to experience again the joy of the outdoors, to hike, climb, ride horses.

We have a park like that near here, Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Guadalupe is harsher than Rocky Mountain, less forested. Yet, Guadalupe’s McKittrick Canyon draws us again and again.

McKittrick cannot be seen from a car window. You have to hike in. From the visitors’ center, the canyon seems foreboding and barren. A rocky path strikes out through scrubby rabbit bush, cholla and prickly pear. It crosses a rock-strewn stream bed, dry as bone. The path climbs. Scrub oak, bent iron-wood, and red-berry juniper crowd the trail. Then we cross the desert rarity that makes McKittrick unique: a perpetually flowing stream. Here we understand oasis. McKittrick is lush with foliage: clumps of bear grass, bigtooth maple, little walnut, velvet ash. In November, she blazes in reds, oranges, yellows, maroons - not blaring and omnipresent like the hardwood forests out east, but intense bursts of brilliant color like an orchestrated Fourth of July.

McKittrick provides year-round refuge. She bursts to life in spring. She offers life-saving shade on scorching summer days. In winter, she’s a hideaway best left to the hearty. In November, we of Carlsbad flock to her multi-colored splendor in a pilgrimage of Thanksgiving. Each season is a new experience in McKittrick. We go year after year to admire each new coat of colors.

Not so with Carlsbad Caverns. The changes are too minute, too subtle - the ever-growing length of steel guard rail being installed to keep visitors on the trail; here and there a formation meticulously cleaned of lint by park volunteers; the absence of coins tossed into a natural pool; a stalagmite, once perfect, now scarred by a careless passerby.

Lower Cave formations Photo courtesy National Park Service
Lower Cave formations

I’m intrigued by Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s impact as Carlsbad’s major natural attraction. I’m on the board of directors of the local Department of Development, a body whose mission is economic growth. Like the Chamber of Commerce, the board sees the Caverns as a tourist draw. We assiduously advertise the Caverns to woo tourist dollars.

But our recruitment packages also tout our “Quality of Life.” Our virtues? Clean air, abundant water, good schools, little crime, a great place to raise kids.

Some of it is hype, but I wonder if we aren’t missing a point: why don’t we put the caverns in the “Quality of Life” section? It’s not that we of Carlsbad spend every weekend at the park. We don’t. In fact, the primary relationship - after the first couple of trips - seems to be to send our visitors out to the park. The park isn’t always on our minds, not really. It doesn’t dominate our city, like Pike’s Peak or the Matterhorn. It’s more that it’s just there, that famous location in the nearby foothills.

But there’s something compelling about the underground that’s part of our town’s psyche. Carlsbad used to be a mining town. For 80 years we were the nation’s primary supplier of potash, a key ingredient of fertilizer. Potash jobs have fallen from 4,000 in the 1950s to 1,295 today, and potash no longer dominates the local economy.

We also have a small core of miners at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, known as WIPP, the world’s first underground disposal facility for transuranic nuclear waste. Here, 50 miners spend their days 2,100 feet underground, s
craping at the creeping rock salt tombs they have carved for the eventual disposal of radioactive trash.

Potash and WIPP are practical operations. These mines have no delicate speleothems, no pristine pools, no awe-inspiring vistas. They are marvels of engineering, perhaps - especially the potash mines’ 12,000 miles of tunnels big enough to drive in - or key pillars of the economy, but they’re neither paeans to beauty, nor awe-inspiring monuments to time. They are underground warehouses and work rooms and tunnels for busy workmen. No one pauses in a potash mine or the WIPP underground to admire the crystals.

The main cavern, the Carlsbad Cavern that tourists visit, delivers an awe-inspiring sense of what the word cavernous really means. The King’s Palace tour introduces us to the delicateness of its speleothems. They’re awesome, as today’s kids say, but they’re also safe, with their paved and lighted trails, their hand rails. If we get tired, or bored, or anxious about making it to Phoenix by nightfall, we have only to walk to the elevator and be whisked up and out in 59 seconds.

It is the off-trail tours that bring us face to face with nature. We walk and crawl and slither in the dirt. We touch and smell and taste the earth’s insides, not just look at them.

Have the Caverns enhanced my life since my family moved from Denver to Carlsbad? Is this national park really part of our local development agency’s “quality-of-life” package?

I’ve been with rangers on other excursions - beyond the Hall of the White Giant to the Guadalupe Room; into the Big Room to photograph the cave after visitor hours when the only sound is our own footsteps; on the ropes course to learn rappelling and, most intriguing of all, how to extract oneself from a vertical cave. Yes, you can literally walk up a hanging rope.

There are precious memories here: the haunting silence; the dark - no, it’s beyond dark, it’s the overpowering thought of perpetual blackness; the entombing enclosure of tiny cave passages; the grandeur of an underground Taj Mahal; the clarity of pristine pools. There’s a fantasy world, too, twisted, shimmering decorations that kindle wild imagination.

But more importantly, for me the caverns create dreams for the future - are there other passages, more ornate, more challenging, more beautiful, but as yet unexplored?

Of course there are, just as there are planets yet undiscovered, and life forms as yet unknown. The possibilities expand my mind and challenge my soul.

I’ve answered my own question: we haven’t packaged this yet, this notion of Carlsbad Caverns as a key component of Carlsbad’s quality of life pitch. I don’t think we can, not in the way the Chamber and the Development Department would want. And not in a manner that Caverns staff would support. Beyond the Natural Entrance and the Big Room, the caves are too fragile, and probably too claustrophobic, for mega-hoards of tourists.

For some of us, though, the Caverns add immeasurably to life’s meaning. The off-trail tours crack open a door to that enhancement.