Cave Conservancy Management

John M. Wilson and Diane Cousineau

28 Jan 2009


Cave Conservancy - Definition and Scope

Cave conservancies are specialized land trusts that manage caves or karst features as their primary mission. They are usually non-profit organizations and their management methodologies may be diverse. Conservancies that manage karst land with few caves are appropriately called karst conservancies. These are included in this study, although the focus of the research is cave management. When land trusts own caves, but cave management is not a significant part of their mission, then these land trust are not considered cave conservancies. One could refer to them as land trusts with caves and they are not part of this study. The number of cave conservancies in the United States grew from one in 1968 to about 25 in 2009. Conservancies have become the primary means by which appropriate caves and karst areas are managed, other than those caves managed by governmental agencies. Cave conservancies in the United States now manage more than 160 properties, with over 7875 acres of karst land and at least 370 caves, with more than 355 miles of cave passage. Abbreviations are used exclusively in this paper to identify the 25 conservancies. Their names are listed in column 3 in the "Factors related to the scope of cave acquisition and management" table.


Goals and Motivation

Cavers have experienced access problems from owners concerned about liability or perceived undesirable high risk people entering their caves. Cavers faced with the loss of access to caves due to land development and cave owners attempting to avoid problems associated with visitation are some of the major reasons caves have been closed to cavers.

The duel driving forces of cave access and conservation, both intellectual and emotional, drive the cave conservancy movement and account for much of its success. The environmental philosophy has provided the intellectual rationalization to justify the importance of cave conservation and protection by conservancies. Mineral formations are especially vulnerable to both intentional and unintentional damage and once damaged, they usually remain so forever. Cave biota face the same threats and risks, as cave life has often evolved in isolated cave environments, with small populations that are vulnerable to extinction.


The emphasis placed on either access or conservation varies according to the circumstances of each conservancy. Access threats can be a powerful incentive to a dedicated caver perceiving a favorite cave will be closed. Cave conservation has almost universal appeal and is the basis of marketing and tax exempt status. Educational interests also support the movement as supporters envision the cave resource as a tool with which to educate for science and conservation. Once a conservancy is established, it may also rely more on the social dynamics of group cohesiveness to build an organization and achieve its goals.


Many long time and older cavers to feel an obligation to protect the resource and contribute to the activity in which they have been involved for much of their lives. Physical limitations from aging may change the nature of their participation to more managing and conserving than caving. These cavers have come to understand that in good stewardship includes protecting to the land above the caves as well the cave passage below.



Americans have served extensively as volunteers in all types of organizations throughout the history of the republic, so it is no surprise that cave conservancies reply on volunteers almost exclusively to management and operate. With the exception of religious activities, no other society has a comparable amount of volunteer activity and the number and diversity of non-profit organizations as does the USA. The form taken by cave conservancies in the USA and the level of success is comparable to other specialty fields.



People who give their time to an organization as a volunteer worker are making a “cash in kind” donation, this is the primary source of wealth for many cave conservancies and often it is conservancy members who have been the major cash contributors as well. Several examples are BCCS, SCCI and IKC which are notable for their success in both these areas. Dues, donations, major gifts, small fund raising events, and fees for services are the most widely used means of fundraising. This is in addition to extensive volunteer time that all cave conservancies receive in significant amounts. CCV is unique among cave conservancies in that it uses gaming as an effective fund raising tool. Establishing a gaming infrastructure is capital and labor intensive and accompanied by assorted risks. This form of funding is not likely to be used by other conservancies.


Cave Management Control Type

The following is the sequence of control levels that are used to classify the type of legal relationship the conservancy has with a cave property. The six methods identify in increasing order of strength of control the conservancy has in managing a cave property. SICLEO System: Enlightened Self management by owner, Informal management arrangement, general Contract, Lease, Conservation Easement, and Own. Many conservancies use several of these methods. The "Factors" table lists the primary method used by each conservancy.


Management Structure

All cave conservancies have some form of board management. They fall into four types. The most common is a board that is independent and self-perpetuating. The second is boards that have members appointed by another organization such as an NSS grotto. Two conservancies have this structure PCC, and NJCC. This structure seems to present the most difficulty for effective management. The conservancies with boards appointed by other organizations as a group manage the fewest caves and have the least resources. The third board type has a strong paid executive. Conservancies are mostly volunteer organizations. Only two conservancies have paid staff. The president of TCC is an employee, and CCV has several paid fundraisers. The forth type is an organization controlled by one person or a small group. This type will have a nominal board.


Nominal and Incidental Cave Conservancies

Some cave conservancies are not cave and land managers, but rather organizations with cave related missions such as public education, grant making, and cave conservation. While these functions are worthwhile and are often needed, they are not the focus of this study, which evaluated functions that relate to cave management and control. This type of conservancy is included in this study for comparison purposes. Some very significant land trusts were not included in this study. The Nature Conservancy, which owns many caves as an incidental part of its mission, is the most significant example of this type. Governmental agencies which own many of the most significant caves were also not included in the study.


Cave Acquisition Success Factors

The conservancy movement success can be attributed to various factors. Competence and success are norms within the organized caving community and these values inspire other cavers to greater effort. Each subsequent managing group has built upon the accomplishments of the previous leaders. Relatively high living standards in the United States since World War II, along with sufficient leisure time, have allowed enough interested cavers to have the resources necessary to build these organizations. All conservancies have had some degree of success in meeting their goals. The significance of these varied accomplishments has often been quite important; however, this study only evaluated success of cave acquisition by any means that achieved operational control of caves. Public trust is necessary for the long term survival of the organization and most conservancies have done some work in establishing credibility among some components of the public. A potential follow up study could evaluate karst land management by conservancies. Long term success of cave acquisition methods is more difficult to measure. For example, one may conclude that fee simple ownership represents a more effective long-term solution than leasing or other means of cave management control. There is insufficient long term data to make a valid comparison. Present information indicates that many leased cave agreements continue for many years and that some convert to ownership. Ownership is usually very capital intensive. More time is needed to make conclusions on the relative effectiveness of different cave management control methods.



We found seven factors related to cave acquisition success by cave conservancies. The twenty-five known cave conservancies were ranked according to their success in acquiring significant caves and cave properties in quantity.


The size of the managed property and length of the cave passage were used for practical reasons as proxies for cave and land significance, since no adequate information on the geologic, biologic, and aesthetic value of caves and land is available in a comparative format. The number of properties owned or leased is an indicator of cave acquisition commitment and effectiveness. These three criteria were used to create ten groups of increasingly stringent qualifications with group ten having the highest standards. Each of the twenty five conservancies was placed in the highest group in which it met all three standards for that group. A weighting system of these three criteria was used to rank each conservancy within its group.

The researchers examined the practices, publications, reports, and websites of each conservancy in addition to interviewing selected leaders. This study did not evaluate other valid accomplishment areas such as public education, grant making, or karst land management that involved few or no caves.



The seven most important factors contributing to cave acquisition success are listed in an approximate order of importance. Please refer to the "Factors” table for data on each item.


1. Mission - All of the cave conservancies that own or manage significant caves either have cave ownership as a primary mission or have cave acquisition by various means as an important component of its mission. All the conservancies in the four most effective groups, seven through ten, have one or both of mission types. All conservancies with more than ten miles of cave passage have cave acquisition as their primary mission, except for two national organizations and CCV which acquired a large cave under special circumstances. Organizations with missions that are clear and consistent have more properties than those that have experienced mission creep or flip between different or opposing missions.


Conservancies have a continuum of different cave access models. Their acquisitions range from caves that are completely open, to very restrictive and closed access caves, depending of the circumstances and philosophy of each conservancy leadership. The explorers, the preserver, the conservers, the scientists, the recreationalists, and the managers have specific interests. The mission emphasis of each conservancy varies significantly depending on the degree to which the leadership adheres to the interest of one or more of these groups. The explorer philosophy predominates in some conservancies that have made exceptional efforts to find, explore, map, and control new caves. They often have acquired caves that were never popular or were newly discovered. Recreational cavers and some project cavers dominate conservancies that have concentrated on acquiring popular recreational caves usually for the purpose of maintaining open access. Conservation emphasis often predominates in conservancies that have restricted access.


2. Location - The conservancy’s area of operation must have sufficient caves with perceived significance to justify the effort to acquire caves. Conservancies in Michigan, New Jersey, and the Northeast, for example, are constrained in cave acquisition by a more limited supply compared to conservancies in Hawaii, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. The "Factors" table shows that groups 5 through 10 have more than 99 percent of the managed cave passage and all of the conservancies but two are in cave rich areas. The WCC is limited in cave acquisition, as most of the significant caves in the western United States area are government owned. Conservancies in groups 6 and above function as cave conservancies and may have a karst conservancy function. Groups 3, 4, and 5 are mostly karst conservancies or one cave conservancies. Both location and mission may be a significant factor in the organization’s emphasis as a caver or karst conservancy.


3. Management Structure - All of the conservancies in the groups 4 through 10 are independent organizations. Three of the five conservancies in group 2 and 3 are dependent organizations. For example, in dependent organizations, most of their board members are appointed by other organizations. This arrangement prevents the development of a strong organization agenda with the leadership to implement it. Leadership is dependent on the whims of other groups. Dependent organization structure appears to be very strongly correlated with limited cave acquisition.


4. Risk Management - Irrational fear of law suits and other calamities will prevent conservancies from pursuing cave acquisition. Cave acquisition will be effectively stopped if people, who have an expectation that cave acquisition must have zero risk before it can be done, become influential in the organizational leadership. The most effective conservancies have realistic and cost effective risk management plans including plans to reduce negligence in the management of their properties. Some additional methods include liability insurance and liability waivers. A few conservancies are self insured. They have also mitigated members with irrational fears.


5. Leadership - Mission consistency, developing leadership, and a membership base are important factors for any organization to achieve. Organizations must develop and replenish their leadership base and have effective decision making processes. There is a positive correlation with the number of people involved in the leadership and the number of caves managed. All of the failed conservancies were weak in the leadership area.


6. Resource gathering - Various fundraising methods, property gifts, barter, and volunteer labor have all been used by successful cave acquiring conservancies. All of the conservancies in groups 4 through10 have been effective in at least one area of resource gathering. Only one conservancy in group 3, Bubble has been effective in resource gathering. At this time only one conservancy generated most of its assets from unrelated sources. No evaluation was done on unrelated funding.


7. Owners, Servers, Customers, and Beneficiaries - In addition to the legal qualifications for tax exempt status, conservancies provide services to varied beneficiaries. In addition to future generations who benefit from protected caves, the main beneficiaries of the conservancies’ efforts may vary. Historically, cavers have worked with cave owners as an effective strategy in meeting their various cave related goals.


This approach has evolved into the "servers" branch of conservancies. This branch has taken the idea of working with cave owners to its logical conclusion and provides cave management services to the cave owners. There are three sub branches depending on the type of owner served. The "private cave owners branch" manages caves for land owners who appreciate this usually free service offered to them. In return, the conservancy gains cave access and can protect the cave. The “government branch servers" assist government agencies with publicly owned caves. The "developers" branch servers assist companies and civic groups to manage caves in developments which have set aside land required as part of the land development. Cave management and consultant services may be provided to the developers.

The caver "owners” branch, of conservancies have become the cave owners through fee simple ownership or long term leases and have effectively becomes the cave owner. The "owners" branch is split into sub branches. One sub branch, "cavers," serves cavers in general in addition to the general public in some cases. They make their properties accessible to most people with a few special exceptions of caves requiring special protection for conservation. The "owners" model best typified by the SCCI allows almost anyone to have access to its cave.

The other sub branch of "owners," the "members," has fairly strict control of its caves. Their management plans tend to make their caves open for members and restrictive to others. The "members" best typified by the BCCS restricts access to members and their guests to most of its caves. It has regular expeditions during which other cavers and people with limited caving skills are allowed to enter appropriate caves. The "owners" branch has acquired more caves than the "servers"; however, in recent years the "servers" have been increasing their rate of cave acquisition.


A potential eighth factor, age, appears to be somewhat related to cave acquisition; however, the correlation is low. All of the oldest conservancies that started conservancy work before 1980 have done well and are in groups six and above; however, several conservancies founded in the 1980’s are the least successful in acquiring caves. The most successful cave acquirer, SCCI, was not founded until 1991.


These seven factors are correlated with cave acquisition success and we think the conservancies that consider these factors in their organization's management will acquire more caves than those that do not. It is recognized that correlation does not necessarily mean causation; so judgment is needed to evaluate decisions regarding cave acquisition in each situation. Additional information is available at the NSS Cave Conservancy Committee website