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The Outdoors Held Hostage

Updated on January 6, 2012
Gate on Slaughter Canyon Cave, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM.
Gate on Slaughter Canyon Cave, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM.
Gate on Sand Cave, BLM land near Carlsbad, NM.
Gate on Sand Cave, BLM land near Carlsbad, NM.
Gate on Little Sand Cave, BLM land near Carlsbad, NM.
Gate on Little Sand Cave, BLM land near Carlsbad, NM.
Gate on Kickapoo Cavern State Park, south Texas.
Gate on Kickapoo Cavern State Park, south Texas.
Gate on Gorman Falls Cave, central Texas.
Gate on Gorman Falls Cave, central Texas.
Sign at Cottonwood Cave, Lincoln National Forest, NM.
Sign at Cottonwood Cave, Lincoln National Forest, NM.
Sign at Alamo Canyon Cave, Lincoln National Forest, NM.
Sign at Alamo Canyon Cave, Lincoln National Forest, NM.

The Outlaw Hiking and Caving Conundrum

Outlaw hiking and caving. What is it? Does it exist? You bet it does. Wilderness areas and caves are illegally explored by hikers and cavers all of the time. I’m sure you know of someone who has done it. Maybe you’ve done it but why?

Is it a discontent with bureaucracy? Is it a distrust or dislike of those in power? Is it ignorance? Or, is it the idea that wilderness areas and caves on government lands should be open to a tax-paying public? I’ve heard all of the questions mumbled by one hiker or caver over many a campfire. It’s amazing how many disgruntled outdoors folks there are and once again, I ask why?

I’ve heard cavers ask why only certain cavers are allowed privileges that other cavers are not. Only so and so cavers from so and so grotto can go to so and so cave. That means all of you other so and so cavers must resort to outlaw caving if so inclined. Is it justified?

I’ve heard certain hikers and those in power insist that some wilderness areas must be restricted for scientific or safety reasons. But of course. Few can dispute that though they may want to dispute who can make those determinations.

Where the argument starts for some cavers is with the hundreds of known caves that are simply hidden from cavers. Cavers have squirreled away cave locations for an eternity. I can imagine a cave man thousands of years ago sneaking off to a secret cave where he kept the bounty of a hard day’s work from other cave men. However, what about when government agencies keep cave names and locations from the public?

I’ve heard some hikers say that wilderness areas should be protected for future generations but who gets to decide which generations are the lucky ones? And, should this decision be made by only an elite few in government?

Unfortunately, there are too many people out there that are oh so willing to ruin a good thing. That’s likely the main reason why wilderness areas and caves are gated or kept secret. That’s something sad about being an outdoor enthusiast in the twenty-first century. There are more and more gates, more and more locks, and more and more signs. But, the people who are breaking locks, destroying gates, and tearing down signs are not true nature lovers. I believe true nature lovers have more respect for nature than that. Caves often get vandalized but not usually by cavers. And there aren’t a lot of hunters and hikers in the backcountry that happen upon an ungated cave and decided to vandalize it. They are too busy with their endeavor or too afraid of going in to a cave to vandalize it. I believe that most caves that are vandalized have been known about for years and are victims of inherently irresponsible and ignorant thugs. Most like ly these are caves that were sacrificed by government agencies years ago.

It’s not right to break rules but I can see why some cavers do. Someone once told me that if you question rules and authority, you’re dangerously close to creating anarchy. If you relate that thought to outlaw hiking and caving, you’re saying that if all nonscientific and non dangerous outdoor areas on government lands were open to any and all, these areas would be disastrously vandalized, robbed, and destroyed. That’s like saying all outdoor adventurers can’t be trusted. Unfortunately, some can’t be and that’s why we suffer with limited opportunities. However, it wasn’t vandalism that caused hikers and cavers to be mistrusted, it was outlaw hiking and caving. That’s the Catch 22.
But what about those unlocked gates? What if you’re hiking one day on government land and you find a cave with only a sign that says it’s illegal to enter without a permit? What do you do? What if you are honest and call the appropriate agency to ask for a permit and that agency says, “No. You can’t have a permit.” What then? A lot of cavers are wondering what to think. Isn’t it human nature to do something you know is wrong whether you justify it with the thrill of being sneaky or the righteousness of doing something you believe is owed to you?

I’ve been on many hiking and caving trips that legally required permits and I’ve scratched my head and wondered why. I’ve been on many hiking and caving trips legally that venture in to areas closed to the recreational public and I’ve scratched my head and wondered why. I’ve heard the argument that some outdoor areas that probably shouldn’t require a permit to enter do because an agency wants to keep track of visitation. They want to know who and how many are entering these areas. Sounds like big brother is following us in to the woods.

In the case of caving, if cavers stick to the usual permitted caves, a caver can exhaust his local opportunities in a year or two. Few caves are open for permit. Should there be more? Would opening more caves only temporarily satisfy lazy cavers or help cavers without a lot of time?

Old timers talk about the difference between a cave collector and a ridge walker. Cave collectors like peak baggers seek to explore as many caves as they can as if to add notches to a belt. They rarely look for undiscovered caves. Ridge walkers commit entire weekends or more to look for caves with no guarantee of finding any. Who’s the better the caver? Is the emergence of more cave collectors than ridge walkers responsible for lack of caving opportunities?

I’m not trying to make arguments for or against outlaw hiking and caving. I don’t have the answers. I only have the questions. I hear from a lot of outdoors folks who are bitter about the secrecy and favoritism so I grow more and more curious about why these folks are forced to be outlaws.

While you’re thinking about outlaw hiking and caving, just remember that the next time you see a gaping hole in a limestone cliff or a beautiful riparian area on the other side of a locked gate, be sure to check your map for ownership, look for “No Trespassing” signs, and think before you leave only your footprint, take nothing but pictures, and kill nothing but time. Outlaw hiking and caving is still illegal no matter how ridiculous you may think the reason is.


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