Scientific research in karst: environmental impacts

Kevin Kiernan


The impact of researchers on caves is dependent upon their behaviour, motivation and competence, each of which vary across a broad spectrum. It is also dependent upon the nature of the research itself. Two major areas need to be addressed. The most fundamental is a rigorous assessment of the validity of the proposed research. How valid the proposal seems will be dependant on the values of the analyst and the broader issues and ethical considerations that are taken into account. The second requirement arises if a research project is to proceed. It includes identifying the potentially negative impacts of the research and developing means of ameliorating them. Contempt born of familiarity is a major hazard underground. Most research in caves involves damage at one level or another and because caves are a finite resource and most components of the cave environment are essentially non-renewable, research in caves can reasonably be considered as essentially akin to a mining venture. Hence, as with any other mining venture, research proposals should be subject to close scrutiny. The almost universal failure to challenge science is also a potential hazard since researchers are just as much self-interested exploiters of karst resources as are limestone miners, cavers, loggers or dam builders.


Science plays an important role in contemporary society and from the point of view of karst managers science can also provide valuable data upon which sound management decisions can be based. However, the manner in which science is practiced in karst environments also has management implications. Some years ago I became aware that a particular community group sometimes met at night in a prominent Australian tourist cave, and that the mortal remains of one of their brethren was actually interned within it. My first reaction was annoyance that the group concerned was able to gain special privileges largely because there was a close relationship between it and the managers of the cave involved. Shortly afterwards, however, the hypocrisy of my attitude sunk in, because as a professional scientist I was enjoying the fruits of exactly the same sort of cosy relationship, and my activities probably had a higher potential for causing detrimental impacts on the environment of the many wild caves in which I operated than did a small group conducting ceremonies in a tourist cave already hardened for visitor traffic. There are many groups who compete for karst resources who assume some sort of almost proprietal interest in caves and seem to consider their interests should predominate - cavers, scientists, managers, resource developers, perhaps everyone!

In my experience three groups stand out among those that claim special privileges for themselves over and above those that are generally considered acceptable among the users of karst caves. One group are those photographers who too often seem to consider they have a right to tread in places that are denied others, so that they might obtain a piece of celluloid that for the most part after one or two viewings disappears into a private collection and vanishes from all knowledge, probably ending up in a box on the local rubbish tip when the photographer makes his last trip underground in a box of his own. The second group are some managers of caves who for themselves or their friends break the rules they set for others as regards access, numbers, and other important issues that sometimes have major implications for the cave environment. And the third component of this trinity of the self righteous worthy of a quick mention in despatches - or perhaps simply of a quick despatch - are scientific researchers.

This discussion reviews some of the kinds of impacts that researchers have, particularly on cave environments, or seem likely to have. My intention is to highlight issues that need to be addressed rather than to apportion blame - if only because it includes a few personal observations on the impacts I am aware of myself having been guilty of causing as a professional scientist, or have seen caused by others around me with whom I have been researching. I am not questioning the reality that soundly-based science can contribute very productively to sound management. Rather, I want to reinforce and expand upon Les Kermode's warning to the to the Sixth Conference on Cave and Karst Management at Waitomo a decade ago that managers should not be "fooled by science" (Kermode 1985). As managers, I believe we need to consider not just measurable physical impacts scientists may have on caves and how to minimise those impacts, but more fundamental questions too. That includes how land managers should respond to claims by scientists for priority in the use of resources when there is only a limited basket of resources to be shared.

Research into caves and karst is undertaken at several levels. It may involve recreational cavers who extend their activities beyond the underground gymnasium stage to embrace cave mapping, recording of sites of apparent importance for one reason or another, or collecting bones, fauna or whatever. In this case the level of cave sensitivity potentially existing in the researcher can be quite high. In other cases research may be the product of managers, often from a bureaucratic background, seeking to secure an adequate data base on which management decisons can be founded, or simply to fend off some uncomfortable political pressure. Other research may be conducted by people from Tertiary institutions or government research establishments, including research by students for coursework or thesis requirements at a variety of levels. Reasonably often this involves cavers with a penchant for justifying a little more caving, but in other cases it entails the entry into caves of people with little or no familarity with them. Some research may even be undertaken simply for pecuniary reasons, as was probably the case for some geologists involved in the explorations of the Franklin Valley karst by the Tasmanian Hydro Electric Commission. This research appears to have been motivated primarily by the legal proceedings regarding the Franklin River dam and by the ultimately unfulfilled political desire of the state government to demonstrate that the archaeological discoveries by previous researchers in Kutikina and Deena Reena caves were nothing special.

This leads us to the whole question of researcher motivation. I hold the perhaps slightly cynical view that nobody does anything for free. By that I don't mean to label all cave researchers as speleostitutes, but to recognise that even the most apparently altruistic person is getting a pay-off in some form, and acts out of self interest in one way or another. Hence, recreational cavers may become cave surveyors or take up collecting fauna or bones because it is of interest to them, because it helps them feel better about themselves, because it makes them look good to their mates, elevates them in the club pecking order, or enables them to con an access permit to a cave or area denied recreational cavers. Bureaucrats may research because they feel better about themselves if they act with professionalism, or, quite reasonably, because they fear failure or criticism if they act in ignorance. Scientists may be seeking self respect or the respect of their peers, perhaps through publishing that truly great paper, or simply so much paper that no-one will realise that the truly great has really eluded them. They may be driven by the goal of career advancement or a perceived need to publish or perish (Kermode 1985). And then there are those who are in it just for the money. All these motives imply that at one level or another there is a goal called success. How strong a spur that is may well condition how much damage researchers cause in the course of their research, how over-excited they may get in the heat of the moment, how prone to lapses of better judgement or ethical action. And while even dubious motives may nevertheless produce good science, just what motivates scientists and how worthwhile their results are has a major bearing on how justified is the damage they cause. Scientists are motivated by the same sorts of things as motivate other people in society, including money, politics and self-aggrandisment, and because human motivation is involved and policing is often negligible malpractice occurs in science just as it does in any other field (Kermode, 1985). Hence, researchers are no more an homogeneous group than are cavers, and no more amenable to characterisation by generalisations or to adequate management by generalised prescriptions. There is a multiplicity of values, expectations, and levels of experience, cave awareness, underground competence, responsibility - and blindness. Researchers are just as much exploiters of karst resources as are the limestone miners, dam builders, tourist cave operators, career land managers and recreational cavers that scientists may bemoan. We are all exploiting karst resources to greater or lesser degrees.

The assessment of how valid a research project may be is greatly influenced by the values of the analyst. Current times of relative stringency have created considerable pressures on the financial resources available for science. The need to ensure value for money and not to squander resources is obvious. But money is not the only resource at stake. Caves are a resource too, and the evolution of most caves is such a long term process relative to human time scales that caves are best viewed as a finite resource. Many components of the underground environment are fragile. Some are less fragile than others, but getting to them without compromising those others is seldom possible. I am sympathetic to the view of Tom Aley (1975) when he suggests that the foundation stone of any cave management plan should be the value most at risk. For practical purposes I therefore subscribe to the view that most caves have no natural carrying capacity. If we are to use caves we must set limits as to the changes we consider acceptable within them. But what limits should we be prepared to place on ourselves, whether we be scientists, managers, cavers or whatever?

Because scientists who work in caves are dealing with a rare, generally non-renewable resource we have to be sure of three things. First, that it is appropriate to allow the resource to be depleted or eliminated. Second, that if the research is to go ahead it causes no more damage than is absolutely unavoidable, either to the resource or to the possible aspirations of other parties for legitimate use of the locality. Third, that we are getting value for the resource invested. How worthwhile is the project in the first place if viewed from a perspective wider than that solely of the researcher? Does it warrant the consumption of the resource or the other impacts it generates underground? On the other hand of course, what benefits may flow to managment, not just for that cave but perhaps more widely? Is it any more valid to accept the notion of "sacrifice" caves (or parts of caves) for science than the somewhat discredited notion that we should treat some caves as "sacrifice caves" for mass caving? We also need to consider the competence and record of the researcher, and not squander a finite resource on people unlikely to complete the project, communicate the results or act upon the information obtained, even if we cannot see another competitor for that resource at the present time. A willingness to try is not good enough. Given that a finite resource is inevitably degraded, the conduct of research without that research subsequently being properly reported and acted upon can only be regarded as irresponsible, selfish and intolerable. Should any scientific malpractice occur in caves it is doubly serious because it involves degradation of rare resources.


The Exploratory Phase

In some cases scientific enquiry builds upon a base established by recreational cavers. In other cases the initial phase of scientific enquiry may involve exploratory activity essentially similar to that conducted by recreational cavers. However, there are some important differences. First, the fundamental values may be different, with scientists who venture underground often looking for one thing in a cave, not for a cave that they consider a valuable entity in its own right. The values they bring underground with them may or may not augur well for the cave environment. Second, any lack of familiarity with caves can result in the sorts of damage that any beginner insecure in the cave environment is capable of inflicting, and in the case of a scientific party there may not be any more experienced or responsible individual on hand to offer guidance and support. Third, scientists are often not as knowledgable about caves as are many cavers, and often lack the sort of overview of cave values that would enable them to understand the existence, value and fragility of elements of the karst environment that lie outside their own immediate area of expertise. As a result they may compromise other values in the quest for their own.

The significance of the potential impacts in this exploratory phase cannot be underestimated. In some Tasmanian wilderness karsts it has been archaeologists who have initiated exploration of caves, not cavers. It is their footprints that have been first into caves, their slipping and sliding that has disrupted the entrance vegetation that is so often overlooked as a value; their taped tracks that have offerred the prospect of finding caves to others who have followed them to the area; and their publicity that has stimulated interest in visiting caves. Consulting and in-house geologists for the Hydro Electric Commission have also undertaken original exploration of caves in the area, in a bid to justify their destruction (Naqvi, 1979; Paterson, 1983). How likely is it that they would have seen caves as places that demanded care and respect?

Finally, if we include general cavers in our list of researchers, there is also a further consideration that some may accept and some may reject - the privilege of initial exploration is a finite resource. How greedy should any one person be for virgin cave or virgin passage?

Cave Mapping

A cave map is fundamental to many scientific studies in caves. Although a map is not always needed we have fallen into the habit of presuming it to be the case. Hence, cave mapping has become an end in itself and it is seldom any more justification is demanded of cave mapping than is demanded of science generally. Perhaps this is because it is seen as the basis for scientific research. In debates about the level of detail appropriate for mapping of the Tasmanian wilderness bushwalkers and managers are often supportive of limiting map detail, while scientists demand more detailed maps as an aid for their research - perhaps its just the scientific mind-set with its obsessive compulsion to measure and document more and more about less and less, sometimes seemingly almost for its own sake. Cave surveyors share with others the usual impacts attendant upon entry to caves, but they may create more specialised impacts. In pursuit of detail and accuracy, they may feel free or obliged to walk or drag their tapes where others would not out of their respect for speleothems or other cave values. The maps they produce may then facilitate wider awareness of the existence of caves or of particular passages. They may also remove some of the mystery. In our quantafrenic, science-obsessed society it may not be a popular notion, but I personally believe that the only thing that destroys wilderness faster than a bulldozer is a map. Cave maps may also pave the way for bulldozers, for developmental interests whose aspirations for the future of caves may be anathema to ours. But cave maps may also help stop bulldozers.

Bedrock Geology

Caves frequently provide splendid exposures of geological interest, including rock units, fossils, minerals and structural features such as faults and folds. Some of these features may be at risk in certain circumstances, depending upon their size or position in caves. Some are imperilled by geological collecting or the misbegotten habit of many geologists to deliberately hammer or idly swipe at items of interest without considering them as finite resources. Scientists, like cavers, may trample underfoot or brush from walls delicate items of geological interest such as replacement fossils that stand proud of the limestone. Unnatural concentrations of wallabies in enclosures at Jenolan have had this effect on replacement fossils on surface outcrops. Redistribution of cave sediments by erosion or by deliberate action may also have implications for bedrock features including protection by burial or degradation due to hydrological or geochemical changes.

Speleothem Mineralogy

At least 80 minerals have been recorded in caves, their formation sometimes being the result of special chemical or climatic conditions. In addition to their intrinsic interest, they may help shed light on climatic or hydrological conditions at various times during the evolution of the cave or of the external environment. Deliberate removal of minerals or speleothems by collectors who consider themselves researchers has been a major problem in some areas. The mere existence of collectors as a potential market has simulated commercial harvesting of speleothems in Tasmania. For this to happen the existence of the resource had to be known - an impact of the research by the cavers who found the cave. Careless movement through caves can also degrade the mineral resource. Changes to the special conditions under which particular minerals have evolved may also have an influence, and could be acheived by a variety of means including deliberate or inadvertant redistribution of sediment, changes to airflows or other climatic parameters, hydrological or chemical changes. The formation of minerals that would not otherwise occur due to the introduction of copper wire into tourist caves should warn us of the potential dangers posed to cave mineralogy by the introduction of materials into caves by researchers.

Surface Geomorphology

Surface karst landforms are of intrinsic interest and and may also contain other materials, such as sedimentary sequences in sinkholes, that are of considerable value. Research that involves the use of fire on the surface can degrade karren by spalling, other forms of damage above or below ground may be generated by research that involves changes to the vegetation such as my own project at Little Trimmer Cave, Mole Creek, may involve. Pedestrian traffic by researchers of one sort or another has the potential to degrade karren, as is evident from its smoothing by tourists at Jenolan or at the Parthenon in Athens (Ford and Williams, 1989). The sampling of rock materials or of unconsolidated sediments from sinkholes also involves removal of a finite resource and may induce drainage or water chemistry changes that have negative impacts underground. Where sinkhole pond sediments are cored, the localised disruption of the sedimentary record has the potential to confound future research if accidentally encountered by another researcher.

Underground Geomorphology

The great diversity among caves and spelogens is a major asset to scientists as it is to cavers. Moreover, caves are often a palimpsest upon which is recorded in sediments, layer by layer, the evolution of both the cave and of the surrounding landscape. The composition and character of cave sediments, their pollen content and other attributes are often major assets. Isotopic studies of speleothems allows insight into past climates that may be of intrinsic interest or may have important practical advantages such as providing greater time-depth to our contemplation of the Greenhouse Effect, our present understanding of which is constrained by the limited climatic record that is available. There seem likely to be few occasions when the removal of speleogens would be contemplated, although some delicate forms are as susceptible to the careless boots of a scientist as to those of a recreational caver. But utilising some of the geomorphic resources of caves involves their removal. Isotopic studies of speleothems demand stealing speleothems. It is something most cavers deplore. But scientists do it, the frequency with which they do so constrained by their personal ethics, their fear of criticism, or a combination of the two.

From my own experience I suspect removing speleothems is probably a bit like serial murder - it's hard the first time but it gets progressively easier ("wow, you ought to see the big bastard I knocked off today!"). The contempt bred of familiarity may potentially really be quite a significant problem. I come from a forestry context where we like to grow trees in a straight line to minimise the intellectual strain involved in trying to figure out which one to chop down next. There's now always going to be a danger letting me near caves where seepage through major joints has promoted the growth of rows of stalagmites, like the Forbidden City. Just as conservation-minded cavers can get careless after initially taking care of their discovery, as we have seen in caves like Welcome Stranger in Tasmania, so does it become progressively easier to collect speleothems, even after an initial abhorrence of the very idea, to the extent that the temptation to collect a likely specimen simply on the off-chance of it proving useful in future may become a hazard. Perhaps I came close to this when I collected several fragments of broken stalagmite from a cave at Mole Creek. Undeniably, even broken speleothems contribute to the character of caves, like logs on a forest floor. Pieced together, these fragments formed an excellent specimen over 2m long. Given recorded growth rates from Tasmanian constant diameter stalagmites this length suggested the potential for a continuous palaeotemperature record of a duration previously unattained from this part of the world. Of course, I had no way of knowing whether its chemistry was suitable for such work when I removed it. Should I have removed such a splendid specimen, justifying it to myself on the basis of its already being broken and its apparent but unconfirmed scientific potential? Would my removal and sectioning of the specimen be any more or less justified according to the outcome, whether it led to a significant advance in our knowledge of past climates or proved useless for such study? Would the damage be reduced if I took the remains back?


Hydrological research may also be of considerable intrinsic interest or of practical value. Understanding karstic drainage patterns can help us understand their evolution and also the evolution of the surrounding environment. Groundwater pollution issues and protection strategies also benefit from hydrological studies. Potential negative impacts associated with hydrological study may stem from the nature of materials that may be introduced into streams and their toxicity or potential to otherwise affect cave organisms. Different tracing agents have their various advocates and detractors, informed or otherwise. Tracers such as spores that may hang around in systems for years and the use of radioactive tracers raise additional issues, as do modifications to stream channels to allow flow measurements to be made, or the employment of some pulse-wave techniques that involve artifical manipulation of the flow regime. How far should we go without fully knowing the real implications? On the other hand, how much paralysis should we risk from a fear of causing inadvertant damage? Once again I think we need to seriously scrutinise the real worth of any research project, and its implications, in the first place. Do we need to know? Will we benefit from knowing? What are the opportunity costs? Other dimensions to this are the potential detriment to the development of "Knowledge" since much is learned by the prepared or well-manured mind realising or seeing things that were not being sought; and the potential dangers of a politically inspired answer to "do we need to know?"

Cave Climatology

Cave climatology is not only a fascinating topic, but also has practical management value given the importance of the underground climate in conditioning the general character of a cave and in influencing speleothems, cave minerals and cave biota. Once again, researchers will have an impact simply by going into caves, as cavers do. Particular impacts associated specifically with cave climate studies may be related to researchers taking access to special locations in caves that might be of little interest to others and which would otherwise have been left undisturbed. The precise impacts will vary with the nature of the study. Recording by data loggers demands fewer damaging trips into a cave than recording data during visits. However, it may involve some subtle negative impacts associated with the introduction of exotic materials into caves, the placement of thin cables against which flying bats might injure themselves, or the establishment of unnatural substrates. Any physical modifications or installations that modify the flow or character of the cave air may have serious implications.

Subfossil Palaeontology

The remains of extinct animals figure prominently in public perceptions about the mystery of caves. Bone deposits found in caves at places like Wellington, Naracoorte and Montagu have been extremely important in expanding our understanding of the evolution of Australia's fauna. Unrecognised bone deposits may be easily damaged by pedestrian traffic so there are advantages in having them identified, provided visitors to the cave respect them sufficiently to safeguard them. On the other hand, a lucrative market for bone material has emerged in many parts of the world due to the presence of private collectors who doubtless consider themselves researchers, just as cavers consider themselves speleologists. This bodes ill for the future of bone deposits in caves. Changes to the distribution of sediment or water that imply chemical decomposition or battering by clastic sediment carried by streams may also be problematic. The study of cave bones generally involves removal of material and this again implies depletion of a finite resource. Once again, the real value of the study warrants scrutiny. Proper planning and execution are essential. In at least one tragic Tasmanian case, a thylacine skull found during an exploratory caving trip was stuffed up someone's jumper prior to ascent of a shaft, and arrived at the top destroyed. In another case, material supposedly collected from a cave appears to have disappeared, either by accident or by deliberate removal into a private collection. Are such occurrences important only because of their impact on the potential for properly conducted research, or because what was removed was something special that should have been left in place in recognition of its intrinsic value?


Caves have become synonymous in the public mind with the study of history and prehistory. Major advances in our understanding of human evolution and adaptation have flowed from cave research. Once again, the archaeological resource in caves is susceptible to the impacts of wilful or careless damage regardless of the perpetrator, but archaeologists themselves pose a range of special threats. Again we are dealing with a finite resource, and archeological sites in some caves have been mined out. Nothing remains as a resource for future researchers who could bring new analytical tools, nor does anything remain to touch the human spirit with a sense of affinity, humility and wonder. The documentation of archaeological sites can be the basis for protective strategies but may also serve to encourage visits that degrade the archaeological resource or other resources in the same cave or in nearby caves. This degradation may involve trampling, or more dramatic problems like the disintegration of the art on the walls of Altimira and Lascaux due to atmospheric changes associated with the number of visitors that flowed from recognition of the archaeological importance of these two caves.

Surface biology

The surface vegetation and fauna of karst is often distinctive but, as with other features may be susceptible to damage. It matters not whether the boot that causes the damage is worn by a caver or a scientist, of whatever denomination. The vegetation of sinkholes and around cave entrances can be damaged by over-collecting in some cases. For example, in Tasmania the alpine plant Oreoporanthera petalifera is restricted to high altitude dolomite and occurs in such low numbers that it could sustain little additional collecting, nor accidental depletion of its numbers. Inadvertant damage to entrance vegetation in the course of research can be visually too obvious for comfort - with embarassment and sorrow do I recall the contrast between the pristine Kutikina and the cave mouth after we had completed our excavations there a decade ago, and I doubt I will ever forget it. We may never really know what harm we did, despite our good intentions.

Underground biology

Caves are an unusual environment, and may be populated by plants and animals that dwell in a variety of niches and zones. Similar sorts of issue about the protection of plants and animals arise underground as arise on the surface, but they are greatly magnified in caves. The population size of some cave species is sufficiently small that the loss of even a few individuals may be sufficient to cause genetic drift or even extinction. The sorry story of the installation erected by Central Queensland Cement in a cave at Mt Etna, supposedly to facilitate research on bats, highlights the potential for ill-conceived research to be detrimental to the target of that research. Might the troglobitic and highly cave-adapted beetle Goedetrechus mendumae (Moore,1972) have easily become a victim of science? The only totally eyeless cave beetle known from Tasmania, this species had been recorded only from the Kellers Squeeze area in Exit Cave when in the mid 1970s two visiting Japanese biospeleologists collected 6-8 specimens of this already-described animal for collections in Japan. Richards and Ollier (1976) subsequently cautioned "This is very bad conservation, for they could have removed the total living population". Another Tasmanian cave beetle has been recorded only from uncompacted sandy floors in a couple of caves in the Gordon-Franklin rivers area. I have to ruefully confess my fear that in our ignorance and with our preoccupation with the archaeology in those caves we may have left barely a patch of this substrate uncompacted by our trampling.

In earlier years I was less than generous to the Tasmanian NP&WS for inhibiting the collection and study of invertebrate fauna from caves, arguing that protective legislation was of questionable value if there was no knowledge of what the fauna was, its distribution, status or other aspects of its biology (Kiernan, 1979). But perhaps there is a case for very conservative management when ignorance is near total, and there is no-one in the agency competent to make an informed decision. Looking back now I am glad my criticism did not have too much impact, for in subsequent years a proposal was received from some overseas researchers that they be permitted to collect huge numbers of glow-worms from Exit Cave so they might analyse the biochemistry of their luminescence. Approval was not given.


Not withstanding my provocative opening remarks, this paper is not really intended to read as any sort of attack on scientists and other researchers, and nor should it be read as particularly singling out the practitioners of those disciplines who have been gracious enough to allow me to work with them over the years - it is simply that I have been better positioned to observe them than others whose impacts may be far more significant! But there is no doubt that some research has the potential to do considerable damage. On the other hand, scientific research is essential to obtain a sound basis for effective cave and karst management. Moreover, research that establishes the scientific significance of a particular cave can be a powerful weapon for those who seek to safeguard it from people who may feel discomforted by the presence of a "brown leech-ridden ditch" like the Franklin River, or who find less inspiration in the underground heritage of karst than in the grosser national products of limestone mining. Remember that Robyn Williams has told us that in conversation former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser asserted to him it was the scientific discoveries in Kutikina Cave that tipped the balance and saved the Franklin River (Williams, 1985). Conversely, knowledge gained by research can be negative in management terms if poorly expressed. To the recreational cavers who compiled the ASF Karst Index, Pig Sty Cave at Mole Creek appeared insignificant, yet now we know it to contain 30,000 year old bone deposits. A responsible developer, having read such a premature dismissal of its significance, and having interpreted the document as the product of a research project, might well have embarked upon destruction of the cave with a clear conscience. We need to make sure our research reports don't make dangerously positive assertions based only on negative evidence.

At a more immediate level, the impact of researchers who do enter caves will be conditioned by the values and perspectives they bring underground with them. Fortunately, most have at least some perception of the importance and sensitivity of cave environments - imagine the scene in Kubla Khan if geomorphologists and palaeoclimatologists shared the apparently pathological incapacity of botanists to resolve even a passing curiosity without ripping a chunk off their quarry, or of some geologists who take a hammer to an outcrop almost as a reflex action, irrespective of any real need to do so. But how much different was the proposal to put half the glow-worms in Exit Cave through the blender for some esoteric research project? We need to guard against any drift towards this cavalier approach.

Some of the greatest abuses are perpetrated by managers. So what of those cases where the scientist is also the manager, and, like me, gets to act as his own judge, jury and facilitator? In some cases where such a person has a desire to act in a way that would require a permit if it was to occur in someone else's jurisdiction, some sort of informal preview/reporting/justification system should perhaps be set up between agencies or other interested parties, although as Ian Houshold commented in the margin of a draft of this paper: "Yes, but who will take the minutes?". But while dangers will obviously always exist with the "old boys" syndrome, some kind of ethics committee system might help ensure plans are properly scrutinised and that everyone is kept honest. To what extent is it reasonable to sacrifice one place in order to protect another? In Tasmania numerous karst areas have been subject to logging operations and resolving the degree to which these operations generate unacceptable impacts is important from both a nature conservation viewpoint and from an economic perspective. In order to obtain some answers I set about seeking a cave that could be intensively studied, the area logged, and then changes that occurred monitored over a period of years. That demanded finding a site that had values that might be impacted upon, but which would not represent too major a loss if the impacts were very serious. Two years into the project various unanticipated values began to emerge. For example, an impressive diversity became evident in the cave biota, including a total of 25 species including 5 troglobites and several species awaiting description. All this in a cave only 200m long! Surely here is confirmation of the observation frequently made that there is a high probability of important values being found in almost any cave if only people look. If I felt uncomfortable about having to embark on a project that might be detrimental to even a relatively minor cave, I felt doubly uncomfortable now. Was this not the Pig Sty Cave problem revisited, premature dismissal of a place and this time at my own hands? If the impacts of logging were as the loggers might wish, the values in the cave might have survived. If they were as many conservationists might fear, individuals of value, or even species, might be erased. Under such circumstances, was the risk justifiable? Did the potential benefits justify the risk? Did the significant economic resources already consumed outweigh the natural resources that might be put at risk, or should the economic resources have been abandoned?

One significant concern in some contexts may be the power garnered unto itself by narrow sections of the research community. For example, archaeological excavations involve the mining of a finite resource. The implications of that resource erosion extend far beyond archaeology. The same cave sediments that interest archaeologists may also be important to the geomorphologist, the mineralogist, the palynolgist, the palaeontologist, and exploiting them may involve impacts on biological, scenic or other resources. Too often the archaeological fraternity jealously guards the right to determine who tampers with a deposit that contains human artefacts, but then tampers itself in total disregard for the impacts they are having on a resource of importance to others, or simply of intrinsic worth. In some Australian states this situation is facilitated by legislation to protect archaeological sites and the influence of bureaucracies set up to support that legislation. In Tasmania, for instance, it is the norm for archaeological research to be carried out by parties comprised solely of archaeologists, at best perhaps with the presence at some stage of another specialist perceived by the archaeologists as being of relevance to their own work. Archaeologists sometimes attempt, to gather samples for examination by other specialists, but again generally only if there is a perceived spin-off for them. Even when their motive is more altruistic, the fact that they try to collect for others without having adequate background to do so in a way that ensures a productive result seems to me to highlight their blind spot. To my mind this situation is nothing less than scandalous. No permits should be granted for the initiation of scientific mines that deplete a finite resource unless a proper spectrum of appropriate specialists is going to be on site so that important information does not disappear through the seives in the single minded quest for the anthropogenic. But it is not only archaeologists who can behave in this way. We need to guard against functionally narrow legislation and agencies that seize the power to issue permits to undertake research in one discipline whilst giving no regard to its impact on another.

I have argued that all people are researchers, and in this paper have happily acknowledged cavers/speleologists to be researchers, just as formally trained scientists are. Because both are exploiting a finite resource I believe we should view cave research, at whatever level, in exactly the same way as we view any other proposal to remove part of a finite resource, and demand of its proponents exactly what we would demand of the proponents of any mining venture. In short, I suggest we should adopt some form of environmental impact assessment process for cave research, and that this should address not just the scientifically definable impacts but also our moral obligations to caves. I have not thought through its possible structure, but I believe it is the path we ought to investigate. And that this process should apply to all forms of research in caves, including exploration.

To make such a proposal work we would need to seriously address the question of project validity, even though we may prefer to avoid facing some of the questions that might imply. We would also need to obtain a better understanding of the impacts reasearchers can have, and of the ways in which these impacts might be ameliorated. In doing that, we would need to recognise the potentially negative impacts of the process of finding the answers to even these questions, and to minimise them. As ever, while some forms of impact by researchers are obvious, there is a dearth of hard quantitative data. One current project in Tasmania, focussed on Little Trimmer Cave at Mole Creek, is providing an opportunity to attempt to start trying to come to terms with at least some questions of research impact (Eberhard and Kiernan, 1990). Some of the impacts we are having in Little Trimmer are similar in kind to those generated by recreational cavers - they are the product simply of numbers of people moving through the cave environment, in our case with maximum care. It is necessary for our scientific purposes that we record all entries to the cave and note any special or unfortunate happenings. We confine our routes between stringlines in a manner facilitative of comparison between trodden and untrodden areas. Hence, some of these impacts should be amenable to measurement and analysis that can validly be extrapolated to the impacts of recreational caving. In other cases we hope to be able to focus specifically on the impacts of science. Lists of invertebrate species present in the cave were compiled at the outset and some population and cave ecology studies are in progress. The erection of a V-notch weir and the installation of other recording equipment are tangible forms of change that we have caused. Water volumes intercepted and changes in cave temperature as a result of our visits can be determined. Volumes of earth, rock or speleothems removed can be recorded. But many other impacts of our presence will be harder or perhaps impossible to address adequately, partly because we really don't know what to look for. Perhaps the biggest impact of our presence in Little Trimmer is not so much what we do there in the name of research, but the fact that we are in the cave at all. In our efforts to resolve these questions we will do things in Little Trimmer that will generate additional impacts, and perhaps damage elsewhere as a result of excessive extrapolation from one cave to another.

While caves are a finite resource perhaps time is not. We have only a very limited stock of caves and probably there is a lot of time ahead. The evolution of that stock of caves has taken eons. Drops of water seem miniscule and ineffective, but over time look what they do, dissolving rocks, depositing speleothems. Measured growth rates for constant diameter stalagmites in Tasmania range from 21 to 79 mm/1000 years (Goede and Harmon, 1983). Even massive speleothems were also built by drops of water. We talk of the limits to acceptable change, but only as applied to caves or other parts of our environment. I think its well past time we gave much more consideration to the limits of acceptable change to our own behaviour, that we put the onus of responsibility, action and proof where it truly belongs. The impact of an individual footprint almost invariably exceeds that of an individual drop of water. Footprints add up too. Shouldn't we adopt the same long-term time perspective to assess the impacts of our own indulgences?

Given the slow rates of cave evolution, the ASF motto "what we have now is all we will ever have" is a reasonable assessment of the situation. What is so imperative about using all these caves right now? Is our greed and self-indulgence really so insatiable and so sacred? Do we resource exploiters of today, be we miners, loggers, cavers or scientists, really have some inalienable right to use all the stock of caves or other karst resources, unhindered by management agencies, by humility, by conscience, by self discipline, by knowledge of what will be the needs of humankind, of earthkind, from now to eternity?


I would like to thank Rolan Eberhard for drawing my attention to the sorry story of Goedetrechus mendumae, and Greg Middleton, John Dunkley, Mick Brown and Ian Houshold for comments on earlier drafts.


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