Exploring the interface between managers and users to mitigate the effects of increasing adventure use of Tasmanian caves

Deborah Hunter


Tasmanian cavers are in the enviable position of enjoying the exploration of caves which are, in comparison with the national scene, generally practically pristine. In particular, Mole Creek has long been somewhat of a mecca, the caves there being within easy reach of access roads and of considerable number, extent, variety and beauty.

The last few years have seen an escalation in visitor numbers to wild caves from all user groups. It is necessary to act urgently to accommodate the increase in useage in ways that prevent the severe environmental degradation that has occured elsewhere.

A broad overview of user groups, their origins, purposes of visit, likely impacts and possible control is explored. Methods of planning for and mitigating the effects of this influx are explored.


There are two aspects to consider in cave conservation, that of cave user impact and that of the impact of land use upon the cave resource. This, the first of two papers I have prepared for this Conference, deals with the first aspect (including comments regarding the "Great Caves") while my second paper will deal with the second aspect. There are obvious political difficulties encountered in presenting this first paper as discussions touch upon the rights of individuals and Clubs to go caving and their conduct. I present it in the spirit of the need to manage and conserve the resource through understanding the nature of impacts, not to point score on mistakes made in the past and present.

The precautionary principal must underlie decisions relating to cave access, as we all acknowledge that above all other "outdoor adventure" venues, caves and the resources within them are non-renewable. The intrinsic value of the ecologically active stream caves of Mole Creek (and Tasmanian caves generally) is widely acknowledged.

Most cave users seem to be Tasmanians to date. Not all cave users are flat out exploiters, and many are actively concerned with cave conservation. On the other hand, those users who see caves as only one aspect of the "great outdoors"; as an adventure venue in which to persue some personal challenge or in which to assert thamselves over the hazards of Nature, can be most destructive. Meaningful management prescriptions can only arise out of consultation of and input by all user groups, unless we lock up all the caves from everyone. Simple prohibition has never worked. From an understanding of the motivations, numbers and conduct of the different groups, educative and other measures can be designed and implemented to ensure future better cooperation with management prescriptions and their objectives.

In practice, safety and ethical exploration techniques go hand in hand more often than not. It is impossible to distinguish the mode of behaviour, hence impact upon a cave, from the labelling of a certain group as scout, club, commercial, "outdoor experience" or any other, as there exists a wide variety of motives, behaviour, and leadership styles and experience within the groups.


Much of the following is generalised, for which there is no apology, as this paper is designed to stimulate discussion and no baseline data exists.

Examples of observations of undesireable behaviour at Mole Creek have included an abseiling group of about 20 young people at the sensitive daylight hole of Westmorland Cave (not the usual entry) who were left to find their way out via the streamway unsupervised; 4 tourists without hardhats and sharing apparently one light spending 1 hour 50 minutes in Wet Cave; a family group including 2 children under 7 in Honeycomb with one torch; a group of 9 including pre-teenager/s entering My Cave (during a time of flood danger) and the continuing regular appearance of beer cans up to 400m within Wet Cave.

There is a tendency in Tasmania to classify groups as either "commercial" or "non-commercial", which I believe to be a scapegoating and simplistic approach. If anything, groups could be classified as those "professionally" led or those led by unpaid people, although this is still simplistic. Nevertheless, within these broad groupings exist the following:

Professionally led: groups under tour guides (commercial operators and show caves), school teachers, Department of Sport and Recreation employees, mainland outdoor education leaders and army groups. These last four may be further classified for our purposes as "outdoor experience" groups, loosely defined as groups who are caving for sport and/or personal development, not because they have a special interest in caves as such beyond the attraction of the challenge, danger or risk they perceive in cave exploration.

Unpaid leadership: groups under Club leaders (ASF Clubs; non-ASF Clubs), scout leaders, those led by participants of previous caving parties returning with a few friends later and casual groups (no leadership). Note: non-ASF Clubs may come under "outdoor experience" groups — they include Clubs other than caving-specific Clubs. However, nothing's clear-cut: there is a Tasmanian tradition for bushwalking Clubs to occasionally visit wild caves for aesthetic appreciation.

It may be concluded that motives for caving greater than simply sport, challenge or personal development can exist in either of the above two broad groupings.

The largest numbers of cavers appear to be coming from the show cave tourists (ethics not an issue here), next Clubs (full range of ethics and low to high impact) and "outdoor experience" groups (poor ethics and high impact), then commercial operators (moderate to good ethics and little impact in terms of generally not deep cave penetration, restriction to a low number of sites and licensing restrictions on those licensed), and lastly casual cavers (no ethics and high impact, but low number of sites) and returning caving group participants (low ethics, likely high impact- but partly dependant upon the example set by the previous leader/s- and limited sites). I believe that the numbers of participants in outdoor experience groups may have outstripped numbers of Club cavers.

About activities deemed commercial: What is a "commercial operator", anyway? A commercial interest would have to be defined as a business which extracts a fee for service leading to wages and/or profit for the operator/leader. Any trip which returns financial gain to leader/s or is part of their paid employment should render the activity "commercial", which would make it subject to the same statutory controls as a business involved in caving.

Bona fide commercial operators have responsibilities to their licensors, cave managers, insurers and clients and are therefore the most accountable user group. As they make repeat visits to specific sites, a custodial ethic develops. Environmental integrity of the site is essential to client satisfaction and business viability of an aesthetically oriented product. Therein is the motivation for the commercial operator of such a product to conserve the cave. If an operator's product was strictly of an adventure emphasis, then perhaps sensitive cave/s may suffer in the pursuit of challenge.

It is also of importance to note that large, organised groups, of up to 50 participants at a time, from the mainland have increased in number and are using outdoor venues such as the Overland Track and the Walls of Jerusalem National Park (pers. comm., J. Boden, 1994). Will or has this useage extended to caves? These groups are not covered under the licensing system as they are assumed to be "non-commercial".

There remains variables in terms of the safety and ethics of all the groups. An earlier but fuller discussion on this appears elsewhere.


There are flaws in terms of controlling visitor impact in caves in relying on the qualification of caving leaders under the National agenda of competency based training for all industries, which includes the outdoor "industry", both recreational and commercial. An in depth criticism of the process of the development of the Tasmanian model for cave leadership appears elsewhere, My remarks here are confined to the possible effects of such schemes upon the cave resource. Widely accessable cave leadership training could further increase the escallation of extra-Club activity.

It has been the subject of much discussion over recent years amongst commercial operators in Tasmania that training can develop a person with the right potential into a good leader, but that training in itself does not guarantee to develop the rather fuzzy edged attributes of "leadership". There are distinct dangers inherent in such accreditation as follows: accreditation assumes access; assumes that the learning of skills can produce an individual with the ability to predict and respond to human situations; by its very nature accents hard skills above ethics, assumes legitimacy of processing large numbers of novices through caves; and makes rather necessary (because of being competancy based) definitions of different "levels" of leadership which can give the impression that less leadership ability is necessary at one level of activity than the other. I acknowledge that there can be more than one level of achievement in hard skills, however I take issue with the apparent assumption that there is more than one level in actual leadership ability. There is a danger also in presuming that all user group leaders can be trained under the one scheme. Is it OK by managers that users present and potential from all groups have the ability to train for leading vertical caves or for deep cave penetration? Planning and proceedure must be thorough at any level, as it is often the way that trips expected to be short or easy in some way will precipitate disaster. High volume groups under non-specialist leadership are more likely to have high impact upon the cave/s, as the need to maintain physical safety and psychological comfort takes most of the leader's attention.


Most would agree that a variety of measures is necessary and include in-cave and other measures. This section briefly examines a wide variety of measures and needs evaluation in the appropriate forum.

In cave measures:

Norm Poulter has written at some considered length on "Protecting Caves From People", and I see no need to reinvent the wheel. His proposals are very practical and commonsense and if widely taken on board should make it easy to ensure standardisation of in-cave protection measures across Australia. In-cave measures will only be of great value if the users are educated as to the rationale behind their employment.

Signage explaining the rationale behind protection measures would help with compliance. Important fauna habitats should be researched and protected by signage and/or roping off.

Gates can be installed at entrances or be used to prevent access to especially sensitive areas within caves. Representative habitats can be better conserved in gated caves. The need to collect the key provides the opportunity to caution users about the habitat/s.

Involve the wider user community in in-cave protection measures and restoration works. To date, to my knowledge, only ASF Club cavers and myself as a commercial operator have been involved.

The visible presence of official persons in and about the caves helps. Commercial operators on the Overland Track and myself at the Mole Creek caves frequently advise other visitors on ethics and safety. We are of necessity unofficial rangers in this, even if merely at the safety level. The Tasmanian Licensed Guiding Operators Association has been advised by an insurance expert that should an inquest reveal the presence of an operator at the site of a tragedy and preventative advice was not given when the opportunity existed then the operator as the expert on the scene could be held legally liable. So when the opportunity to give advice presents itself operators should also be giving ethics advice.

Education and training:

Many believe that if a person shows an interest in caving, then they should be welcomed into the fold of Club caving. Otherwise, caving should not be promoted as a sport to those who would otherwise show no interest (particularly see NORLD Symposium Report). In the light of this, I contend that advertising caving in the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation's Outdoor Experiences booklet is inappropriate. It seems that control over publications is impossible due to the right to freedom of the press, so perhaps education of the publishers of this and other present or future publications is appropriate. Publication is a wide problem. Adventure magazines are a case to consider in their own right.

The developers of outdoor education curricula should be educated into the same philosophy. It is inappropriate for caving to be either a compulsory part of such a curriculum or even on offer. If young people express an interest, then they can be cheerfully referred to the Clubs or appropriate commercial operator. It was acknowledged by the National Outdoor Recreation Leadership Development (NORLD) Symposium, July 1992, that caves are a special case. But nothing has changed. (see below, "other measures", also)

Other measures:

If eliminating caving as part of the outdoor experience groups' curricula doesn't happen, a number of measures could be undertaken: The caving component should be strictly introductory and those further interested refered to the Clubs; match aesthetic or adventure motives to the appropriate venue (selected with wide stakeholder consultation); restrict available venues, making it clear that further venues are only advocated for Club or licensed activities; use "registered leaders" for the caving component of the program. (Wild Cave Tours subsidises its "Special Interest Groups" product with revenue from the Tourist product to provide an affordable activity for such groups and has had some success)

Educate outdoor experience group leaders that vertical and deep cave penetration is more than an introductory experience and is in the realm of Club caving.

Great Caves: The best option for protection is probably providing specially trained Rangers for guiding, as further show cave development is not feasable. If this isn't possible, use specially recognised "registered leaders" or an operator with a proven track record. The right to guide should be exclusive to a proven operator, and subject to review. In either case, remuneration by participants would be applicable.

There is no concluding statement to this paper, other than to state I am convinced that managers and users must now work together to protect caves from people. Following discussions and any input at this Conference, I will review and present this paper together with a summary in the next (4th) issue of the Mole Creek Caving Club's journal, Illuminations.


Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation (Tas) (1992) National Outdoor Recreation Leadership Development Symposium Report

Department Of Tourism, Sport and Recreation (Tas) (Autumn-winter 1995). Outdoor Experiences

Hamilton-Smith, E. (1994) Who Owns The Caves? (in) Australian Caver 136, journal of the ASF Inc

Hunter, D. (1992) Cave Leader Accreditation (in) Illuminations 1, journal of the Mole Creek Caving Club

Hunter, D. (1993, 1994) (in) trip reports of the Mole Creek Caving Club (unpublished)

Hunter, D. and Lichon, M. (1993) The Emergence of new Caver Groups in Tasmania and an Assessment of Their Cave Impacts. (in) Illuminations 2, journal of the Mole Creek Caving Club

Poulter, N. (1993) Protecting Caves From People (1). (in) Proceedings, Tastrog 1993 ASF Inc. Conference

Poulter, N. (1994) Protecting Caves From People (2). (in) Australian Caver 137, journal of the ASF Inc

Western Tiers Campaign (1993). Towards a Great Western Tiers National Park Management Plan. Deloraine Environment Centre, Inc