Comments sought on Hubbard Cave gate | PostIndependent.com

Comments sought on Hubbard Cave gate

Will Grandbois
will@postindependent.com
A group of locals and cavers explore Hubbard Cave in 1952.
John Streich / Colorado Grotto collection |

CAVE COMMENTS

Public comments regarding a Hubbard Cave gate are due by Sept. 12. A form, along with a link to the scoping document, is available at tinyurl.com/hubbardcomment. They can also be mailed to Karen Schroyer c/o Phil Nyland, Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, 620 Main St., Carbondale, CO 81623, faxed to (970) 963-1012, or emailed to pnyland@fs.fed.us. For more information, contact Nyland at 970-963-2266.

With white nose syndrome continuing to threaten bat populations in the Eastern states and now on the West Coast, the U.S. Forest Service is taking public comment on a proposal to install gates on Hubbard Cave near Glenwood Springs.

The cave gets its name from William Henry Hubbard, who moved to the area in the 1880s to serve as a hunting guide and reportedly once mistook a client from Chicago for a bear and shot him to death with his Colt 45. Hubbard and his brother-in-law Griffith Jones stumbled across the cave on the rim of the Glenwood Canyon while prospecting in 1892 and ended up relying on their dogs to find the way out after an extensive exploration.

For the better part of a century, it remained a popular destination due to its three entrances, large interconnected passages and four-wheel drive access. In 2010, however, White River National Forest suspended access to all public caves due to concerns that humans might be spreading the deadly white nose fungus among bat populations.

Whether cavers can spread the disease remains a topic of debate, particularly after the discovery of the disease in Washington state this spring. Previously, it hadn’t been reported farther west than Oklahoma, prompting renewed speculation of human assistance, either via cavers or a bat hitching a ride in a truck or ship.

Some area caves have been reopened on a seasonal, permitted basis, but Hubbard remains closed year-round. Without a gate, however, the restriction lacks teeth.

“We still see evidence that folks are going in,” district biologist Phil Nyland explained at a Colorado Western Slope Grotto meeting Tuesday night. “The signs we put up are torn down.”

Nyland emphasized that rule breakers are likely not organized cavers affiliated with local caving clubs — grottos — or the National Speleological Society. Instead, he suspects they’re likely just locals who have been used to accessing Hubbard for generations.

“Glenwood has been using that cave for over 100 years, and that’s not lost on us,” he observed.

Nevertheless, he believes the unprecedented bat population of the cave justifies a greater level of protection.

“We have a lot of information that makes us believe that this needs to be the next step,” he said. “It’s one of the largest known winter colonies on public land in Colorado.”

“The ecological function of this many bats is unprecedented,” he added. “They’re are all insect eating. One bat can eat it its weight in a day.”

Caves in the area have been gated off before. This summer, the Forest Service installed a gate on Spring Cave near Meeker using labor from the Buena Vista Correctional Facility. During the construction, two seasonal GeoCorps rangers were stationed at the cave on the weekends to educate visitors about cave protection. The cave and the gate officially closed for the season on Aug. 15 and will reopen in April.

The project attracted some concerns from cavers over the potential impacts of welding in place on bats and other cave life, as well as the vertical bars on one of the two entrances which some feared would actually discourage the bats. According to Nyland, the spacing of bars is more critical than their orientation, while one of the GeoCorps rangers reported that mitigation and monitoring is in place for construction impacts.

If early comments are any guide, the proposal to gate Hubbard will likely generate even more controversy.

In his response, veteran Colorado caver Donald Davis called the plan an “overreach, and irresponsible use of public money.” He cited numerous construction challenges and the difficulty of maintenance at a fairly isolated site.

“The level of continued attention needed to keep such controls working is often underestimated when they are built, and especially when administrators change, the gates are likely to be neglected or quietly given up on,” he wrote. “In spite of human visitation, the bats at Hubbard’s Cave have been doing fine for more than a century, and will probably continue doing so for the foreseeable future if the cave is simply left alone.”

Richard Rhinehart, former editor of Rocky Mountain Caving and author of several books on Colorado Caves, had similar concerns.

“Although there is some indication the cave is still being visited on occasion, an expensive and massive gate project will not change this action,” he wrote. “In many ways, adding gates to keep people out make it even more attractive to a certain element of society.”

Rhinehart urged the Forest Service to consider the potential ecological and archaeological impacts of the gate. He also pushed for some sort of controlled or guided access to the cave.

Although it’s not part of the current plan, Nyland noted that the gate could make it easier to provide legitimate entry.

“This gives the agency some surety, and it facilitates a more informed management scenario for conservation, education, and potentially recreational use,” he said.

In any case, a cost estimate and potential funding is still pending. At the soonest, construction would begin next summer.