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Celebrating the International Year of Caves and Karst

By Limaris Soto 
Edited by Daniel White 

2021 was designated as the International Year of Caves and Karst (IYCK), an initiative of the International Union of Speleology (UIS) and recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as an important public awareness campaign about the significance of protecting and conserving these fragile and in some cases non-renewable resources. 

Diverse cave and karst resources can be found across 100 National Forests and Grasslands. An estimated 7,000 caves exist on Forest Service-managed lands, and to date more than 2,500 have been designated as “significant” under the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988. Significant caves on federal lands are a valuable and irreplaceable part of the nation's natural heritage managed by the Forest Service as part of the public trust. 

Caves and karst systems support critical groundwater systems and unique and rare biological communities. The Forest Service has show caves, recreational caves, and many other designated recreation sites with interpretive signs and programs related to caves and karst. Caves may also have significance as cultural, paleontological, or heritage resources. Exploration and visitation of undeveloped caves is a popular recreational activity, but the local Forest Service office should be consulted prior to caving to ensure that access is not restricted.  

Some caves are currently closed due to COVID-19 visitor safety concerns and to protect bats, which are vital components of cave and karst ecosystems. Bats across the United States are affected by white-nose syndrome (WNS), a deadly disease that affects the animals during hibernation. White-nose syndrome has decimated many U.S. bat populations and spread across the country. Human visitors can unknowingly spread this disease.  To prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome and to avoid further stressing infected bats, the Forest Service has closed many caves to visitors.  Other areas have advisories or recommendations to avoid caves with hibernating bats and requirements to decontaminate gear before and after visiting caves and mines. 

2021 International Year of Caves and Karst logoDue to the pandemic, the IYCK celebration has been extended to 2022. The Forest Service’s goal for the celebration is to educate and promote the importance and conservation of these fragile resources in National Forests. This will be accomplished by hosting virtual and in-person events and creating digital media posts focused on cave and karst resource discoveries, exploration, archaeology, paleontology, biology, climate, recreation, and other themes.  For more information about the International Year of Caves and Karst and how to get involved in your local unit, contact Lima Soto, the Forest Service’s Caves and Karst Program Lead. 

Learn more about the IYCK, caves, karst, events, by visiting the IYCK website