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Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest caves: A hidden world of biological, geological and cultural resources

NEVADA — The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest is home to dozens of caves scattered across its 6.3 million acres. Many of these caves are known for their recreational opportunities, but they are also a rich and often fragile storehouse of extraordinary information.

“The caves on the forest formed millions of years ago, and therefore have had a lot of time to accumulate all kinds of amazing things,” said geologist Doug Powell. “Over time, they have provided habitat for a variety of species from large mammals to microscopic bacteria. Many of these caves today are home to endemic species of organisms that in some cases are known nowhere else on earth.”

In the past, the Forest Service has partnered with scientific organizations to conduct various types of research in a number of the forest’s caves. In 1982, the forest partnered with the Cave Research Foundation to fund a project to excavate the fossil remains of a number of large Pleistocene age mammals in a cave near Ely, Nevada. One fossil removed from the cave was an extinct giant short-faced bear. This species of bear succumbed to extinction about 11,000 years ago. A cast of the bear resides at the White Pine Public Museum in Ely. This kind of research is essential to understanding the past, so as we head into summer, the forest is making a concerted effort to ensure that visitors know best practices for minimizing their impact on the caves.

There are still many caves that have yet to be fully explored and discoveries waiting to be made. According to Powell, their remote locations have ensured they haven’t been fully explored by the scientific community. He added, “There are vast amounts of information waiting to be discovered as we continue to explore and study caves.”

But until the caves can be explored, Powell reminds visitors to take care when visiting caves. “In what has taken hundreds, to thousands, to millions of years to form can easily be destroyed in a single moment of time.” He also reminds them of the “Old Caver’s Motto” — take nothing but pictures, kill nothing but time, and leave nothing but very carefully placed footprints.

Probably the biggest recreational issue is graffiti and trash, so the forest is directing visitors interested in learning more about caving to contact a local chapter, or grotto, of the National Speleological Society. NSS members are available to help teach appropriate caving safety and etiquette. The plan also reminds people of the requirements to clean and decontaminate their equipment before and after trips to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome. And, of course, as caves can be home to diverse species and caves may be closed, they’re asking visitors to check in with the forest before heading out their front doors.

Photo: Person in safety harness and helmet rappels down into a cave.
An inventory crew member rappels into a forest cave. Photo courtesy Gretchen Baker, Great Basin National Park.
Photo: Two members of an inventory crew wearing helmets with spotlights enter a cave. Photo taken from within cave toward opening. Behind the people are hills of forest land.
An inventory crew enters a cave on Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Photo courtesy Gretchen Baker, Great Basin National Park.