LawsThe NPS's authority to conserve and manage resources in parks is derived from the NPS Organic Act of 1916 (16 U.S.C. § 1), which states that "the fundamental purpose of the said parks...is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
The General Authorities Act of 1970 and its 1978 revision (16 U.S.C. § 1a-1 et seq.) clarifies the authorities applicable to the National Park Service system.
Specific to caves, the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988 (FCRPA)(16 U.S.C. § 4301 et seq.) directs the secretaries of the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture to inventory and list significant caves on federal lands. This act recognizes that significant caves are an invaluable and irreplaceable part of our natural heritage, and that caves may be threatened by improper use and increased recreational demand. The purpose of the act is to secure and protect significant caves on federal land for the benefit and enjoyment of all people while fostering increased cooperation and information exchange among those who use caves for scientific, educational, or recreational purposes. The FCRPA also specifically addresses confidentiality of information regarding the nature and location of caves to ensure their protection, including exemptions for cave location information from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Section 207 of the National Parks Omnibus Management Act of 1998 authorizes the NPS to withhold information from the public in response to a FOIA request concerning the nature and specific location of threatened, endangered, rare, or commercially valuable objects, or objects of cultural patrimony located in units of the National Park System, unless the Secretary determines that the release of such information would not harm the objects. This exemption helps protect commercially valuable objects such as minerals, fossils, and other valuable items and also exempts information that could reveal "the nature and specific location" of caves and objects within caves. This information includes, but is not limited to, survey data, surface and subsurface maps and names of geographic features.
The National Cave and Karst Research Institute Act of 1998 (16 U.S.C. § 4310 note) was passed by the 105th congress to further the science of speleology, centralize and standardize speleological information, foster interdisciplinary cooperation in cave and karst research programs, promote public education, promote national and international cooperation in protecting the environment for the benefit of cave and karst landforms, and promote and develop environmentally sound and sustainable resource management practices. See the fruits of this legislative labor at the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) website.
Cultural resources within the caves are generally within the scope of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) (16 U.S.C. § 470 et seq.), the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1974 (ARPA) (16 U.S.C. § 470aa et seq. ) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) (25 U.S.C. § 3001 et seq.).
Paleontological resources in caves and karst are protected by the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA) (PL 111-11) that was part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009.
The management of some caves may also be regulated by the provisions of the Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1131et seq.).
The Department of the Interior provides the basis for identifying and managing significant caves on federal lands administered by the Secretary of the Interior in CFR Title 43-Public Lands: Interior, Subtitle A-Office of the Secretary of the Interior, Part 37-Cave Management.
The NPS also implements the legal authorities cited above and governs activities in cave and karst parks through the general NPS regulations, found at 36 Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) Chapter I. These regulations apply to federally-owned lands and waters administered by the NPS within park boundaries and also to some nonfederal lands and waters within park boundaries (36 C.F.R § 1.2).
Additionally, the NPS manages cave and karst parks as directed by the NPS Management Policies (2006) (PDF - 2.5MB). The policies directly related to cave and karst questions in parks include:
Section 126.96.36.199 Information Confidentiality "Although it is the general NPS policy to share information widely, the Service also realizes that providing information about the location of park resources may sometimes place those resources at risk of harm, theft, or destruction..."
Section 188.8.131.52 Protection of Geologic Processes, Karst "The Service will manage karst terrain to maintain the inherent integrity of its water quality, spring flow, drainage patterns, and caves. Karst processes (the processes by which water dissolves soluble rock such as limestone) create areas typified by sinkholes, underground streams, caves, and springs. Local and regional hydrological systems resulting from karst processes can be directly influenced by surface land use practices. If existing or proposed developments do or will significantly alter or adversely impact karst processes, these impacts will be mitigated. Where practicable, these developments will be placed where they will not have an effect on the karst system."
Section 184.108.40.206 Management of Geologic Features, Caves "...Many caves or portions of caves contain fragile nonrenewable resources and have no natural restorative processes. In these cases, most impacts are cumulative and essentially permanent. As a result, no developments or uses, including those that allow for general public entry (such as pathways, lighting, and elevator shafts), will be allowed in, above, or adjacent to caves until it can be demonstrated that they will not unacceptably impact natural cave resources and conditions, including subsurface water movements, and that access will not result in unacceptable risks to public safety. Developments already in place above caves will be removed if they are impairing or threatening to impair natural conditions or resources..."
Section 220.127.116.11 Wilderness Preservation and Management, Caves "All cave passages located totally within the surface wilderness boundary will be managed as wilderness. Caves that have entrances within wilderness but contain passages that may extend outside the surface wilderness boundary will be managed as wilderness. Caves that may have multiple entrances located both within and exterior to the surface wilderness boundary will be managed consistent with the surface boundary;those portions of the cave within the wilderness boundary will be managed as wilderness."