In the wild cave and commerical caverns of Virginia, where bats hang weary heads and stalactites grow one cubic inch every 120 years, an underworld war is being fought, and lost, to vandals.
Stone treasures of awesome and delicate design, formed over a million years by rainwater seeping through limestone rocks, are being destroyed or stolen. Insect-eating bats, slandered in a hundred horror films, are regularly clubbed to death. And ancient Indian burial grounds now suffer modern stripes of spray paint.
Just two weeks ago, a few eons worth of natural stonework was shattered in a commerical tourist cavern in southwest Virginia. Six boy scouts from suburban Maryland were arrested and charged with the crime.
"I don't know what there is about the national attitude, but there is more vandalism everywhere," complains Evelyn Bradshaw, a 65-year-old caver from Alexandria and a member of Virginia's newly formed Cave Commission, which is offering a bounty of $500 for information leading to the conviction of cave wreckers.
The Cave Commission, bearing perhaps the most mirthful name of any official body in the commonwealth, must do battle against both vandalism and public opinion. "Save A Cave" campaigns elicit little support from people who grew up fearing them as dark, damp hideouts for bears, snakes and blood-sucking bats. Saving whales or baby seals, cavers admit, has more sex appeal.
"Unless we do something soon, there won't be any caves of aesthetic value left by the year 2000," warns John Wilson, the chairman of the two-year-old Cave Commission. "In some caves . . . anything that can be carried off has been carried off and anything that can be broken has already been broken."
When the 11-member commission meets, usually above ground, the geologists, biologists, amateur spelunkers and cave owners are less likely to talk about speleotherms and troglobites than safety gates and reward posters. The commission did prod the General Assembly to pass a Cave Protection Act two years ago that makes vandalizing caves, disturbing bats or selling cave formation in Virginia a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine.
But the new law, even when reinforced by steel-plated doors, has not been enough to stop the underground mayhem. Wild caves are most susceptible to violation because they are isolated and not often visited. But the half dozen commerical caverns in Virginia, which generate more than $12 million in revenue annually, suffer their own brand of destruction.
"Everybody is the cave business is trying to fight [vandalism]," says a spokesman for Luray Caverns, Virginia's biggest. "The more things are torn down, the faster we're going out of business."
There are 2,500 known caves in Virginia, making it one of the more cave rich states in the country.For at least the last 9,000 years, Virginia's caves have been used as shelters, alcohol stills, churches or burial grounds. Outlaws and Confederate army troops found refuge in them. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson explored a few. And George Washington allegedly committed one of the earliest recorded acts of defacement. His name can still be seen on the stone wall of a former saltpeter mine.
"Don't print the name of the cave," pleads an officer of a local caving club. "Wild caves don't need any more publicity."
Cavers are a protective group. They defend the list and locations of wild caves like Christians guarding the catacombs. Too many have been seen once-beautiful caverns stripped of mineral treasure.
"If you had gone into caves around here 10 or 20 years ago and then today, you'd see a incredible change," says Robert Anderson of McLean a local caver and a member of the Cave Commission. "That is a lamentable fact."
"Those of us who see something that took half a million years to form . . . have a moral or ethical obligation to protect it," says Wilson, who mourns not only for rock formations but the unique animal life that has envolved underground.
Owners of Virginia's tourist caverns have an added financial incentive to conserve. Luray, with 40 tour guides, two souvenir shops and 400,000 vistors a year, is the largest of the half dozen commerical operations that lie in the limestone valleys west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Massanutten, a one-man operation, is the smallest. Each boasts its own special attraction -- a stalactite organ, a "God in the Mountain" drama or a rainbow lake.
All share a vulnerability to vandalism.
Grand Caverns, just south of Harrisonburg, was closed for almost two weeks after recent damage done when the cavarns had closed for the night. Six boy scouts, camping nearby with their troop from Silver Spring, were arrested and released on $500 bond. Last year Massanutten Caverns was damaged by interlopers who smashed down a steel-plated door. No arrests have been made.
"The bastards broke in here while I was at the hospital last September," says Bradford Cobb, the owner, lighting director and chief guide for Massanutten, which is near Harrisonburg, at the end of a few miles of country road.
Standing in a cool, damp corridor of his caverns, which he advertises as the state's shallowest ("Everybody has to brag about something"), Cobb gets steamed up over an empty space where stalactites used to hang.
"Some people have a very perverse sense of what's fun in life," says Cobb, a round, bald, 54-year-old Harvard graduate who leads underground tours with the aid of a cane and two pocket flashlights. "The thrill of destruction, it's a shame, it's a shame."
Cobb bought the caverns in 1955 to escape a data processing job in New York. Massanutten had by then long since passed its glory years when dances were held in an underground ballroom and tourists traveled from across the state to use the golf course, swimming pool and lodge that surrounded the caverns. What remained were the huge stone pendants, bacon-shaped ribbons of rock and acres of ceiling stalactites and floor stalagmites that resemble gum drops, soda straws and icicles.
"Look over here," says Cobb, shinning his light on the tip of a stalactite hanging just a few inches above the tip of a stalagmite. "Those two should touch in about 300 years. That's something to look forward to."