Thank you for your interest in cave management actions at El Malpais National Monument. I appreciate this opportunity to further explain what we've done and why. On December 6, 2010 all caves at El Malpais were closed to recreational use. This closure brings the monument's caves under a permit process for recreational and research access. In the past, five of the 290+ caves in El Malpais were open to visitor access without a permit. The recent closure of these five caves brings the monument into compliance with National Park Service (NPS) policy; much of which is derived from the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1987. The policy of the NPS is to control access to "significant cave resources," which applies to all of the caves within El Malpais. Recreational access to all monument caves will now require a permit. However, for the time being, we are not issuing recreational caving permits and we are carefully reviewing cave research permit requests.
The review of the management of and access to caves at El Malpais was prompted by the issue of the westward progression of a fungal disease known as White-nose syndrome. This disease is wiping out bat populations in the Eastern U.S. Agencywide, National Park Service guidance is to limit the human-caused spread of the fungus through actions such as screening visitors and employees before they enter caves and by restricting access if screening is not feasible. The caves at El Malpais are spread throughout 114,000+ acres and we do not have control points such as entrance stations or visitor centers that people must pass through on their way to the caves. Agency guidance for situations like the one at El Malpais is to close caves to protect bat populations.
Right now we are limiting cave access to approved research and administrative uses only. We have research underway to determine if the fungus is already present in the caves and if hibernating bats at El Malpais already have the disease caused by it. Similarly, we are conducting surveillance of the caves to determine which serve as hibernacula and/or maternity colonies.
It is our intent to open caves under a recreational caving permit system once we can determine which ones don't serve as hibernacula and/or maternity colonies for bats and assure that the other significant cave resources will not be harmed by allowing recreational use. The suspension of recreational caving access while we make these determinations could last a year or more, but we will work to release caves from this hard closure as soon as we can.
I understand that closing cave resources limits some of the unique experiences El Malpais National Monument offers. I appreciate your patience as we work to protect cave resources while striving to provide quality recreational experiences. In the meantime, I encourage you to take advantage of the numerous opportunities to explore the lava flows and cinder cones while experiencing solitude within the monument. Our web pages are filled with ideas for exploration. Once you are in the area, stop by one of the visitor centers and staff will help you plan a memorable visit.
Kayci Cook Collins
Superintendent, El Malpais and El Morro National Monuments