Grand Junction resident Richard Rhinehart is enjoying the thrill of having helped discover a new cave in the Glenwood Springs area.
Now, he wonders not only how long the cave might be, but also whether it will continue to exist or end up being mined under a proposal by Rocky Mountain Resources to expand a nearby limestone quarry.
“They would remove every portion of it that’s known,” Rhinehart said Wednesday.
Rhinehart and fellow caver Rob McFarland of Rifle found the cave on Bureau of Land Management land in late October, close to Halloween, and have called it Witches’ Pantry. They were purposely looking in the area of the quarry because of concerns about the possibility that expanding the quarry could impact unknown caves. The quarry is near Glenwood Caverns, one of the longest known caves in the state with more than 3 miles of surveyed passages.
Rhinehart, who has lived in Grand Junction for about five years, has written books about caves in Colorado and for decades had served as editor of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Caving quarterly journal, for which he now volunteers as digital editor. He’s currently keeping tabs on the quarry expansion proposal on behalf of the Colorado Cave Survey, a branch of the National Speleological Society.
Rhinehart and McFarland began looking for caves based on electrical resistivity and seismic survey surface work a consulting company had done in the area in association with the proposed quarry expansion. The work was intended to look for possible caves.
Rhinehart said when he and McFarland found the cave they had been searching together at first and then split up, and McFarland came upon the cave entrance, which is hard to see from even 10 or 15 feet away.
Its existence apparently has proven hard to notice for some animals, too. Rhinehart and McFarland found bones of animals that apparently fell in the cave and had them analyzed by a paleontologist who determined the bones belonged to deer and domestic sheep, and in the case of a leg bone, a bear. But Rhinehart wonders whether the mound of sediment that had the loose bones on top may contain the remains “animals of a much greater age.”
The cave entrance chamber is dry but contains dripstone decorations including draperies and flowstone. A crevice that narrows to about 10 inches provides tight passage to small chambers with wet, dripping stalactites and flowstone. Rhinehart said airflow at the back of the cave strongly suggests that it might extend much farther than the 150 feet or so explored so far.
Rocky Mountain Resources is proposing drilling wells to get baseline hydrological data on its expansion proposal.
One concern for Rhinehart is that one of the wells could connect to the newly discovered cave, creating chimney-effect wind that could dry out pools and dripping formations in the cave.
He also worries about earth-moving equipment related to the quarry expansion collapsing through the surface and into the cave, potentially hurting or killing the operator.
A 1988 law provides protections for significant caves on federal lands, and Rhinehart said the Colorado Cave Survey is nominating the newly discovered one as significant.
“(The law) definitely offers protection but I’ve been told that the law specifically does not apply when there are active mining claims,” he said.
He said mining claims under an 1872 mining law supposedly take precedence over the cave law, which would allow the newly found cave to be quarried away.
“I don’t think that’s ever been tested in court, which one really takes precedence. That would be an interesting prospect,” he said.
The quarry expansion proposal has met stiff resistance from Glenwood Springs and the surrounding area due to concerns about possible traffic, dust, visual and other impacts, including the possibility of harm to things such as the underground hydrology that supplies hot springs attractions in the tourist town.
The BLM is in charge of the environmental review processes both for the drilling proposal and quarry expansion itself, and cave protection and hydrology are part of what it will be looking at. BLM spokesman David Boyd said one thing it will be determining is whether the quarry produces high-grade or common-variety limestone. High-grade limestone would fall under the 1872 law, giving the BLM has less discretion in its decisionmaking over the proposal.
“If it comes back as common-variety limestone then we have more discretion in what we approve and if we approve it,” Boyd said.