As a result of one of our member's caving party removing a piece of broken stalagmite from a cave and being caught by a landowner, it is time to remind everyone of their obligations when it comes to protecting our caves from further deterioration.
"Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs."
As a rule of thumb, this saying is excellent. Leave no litter, spent carbide, muddy handprints on formations or unnecessary rigging aids. No rock, formation (already broken or not) or creature should be removed. Even so, there are times when footprints and photographs could be too much. Pristine mud floors should be left just as they were when the first explorers found them, so stick to any marked path and do not create extra footprints. If there are hibernating bats, then you should not start taking photographs of them. The heat from your body as you set up you equipment, added to the heat from close flash guns, the bright light, and the general milling around might disturb the bats, which is a legal offence.
Who is responsible for ensuring the preservation of our caves? Every single caver who uses them, without exception. Anyone who calls themselves the leader of a party must also take great care that the others in his group are careful. Everyone in any group has an obligation to ensure that the people around them, whether they are in their group or another, do not do things to degrade the cave. It is up to all of us to try to ensure that the caves that are still so beautiful today are as near to that condition for the generations of cavers that follow us.
What can we do to help conserve our underground heritage? The first thing to aim for is to make sure that things do not get any worse. This means taking great care to avoid damage, or further damage, to formations of all types - calcite, gypsum or mud - or other items of interest underground. These other items could be mineral exposures or dry stone walling in old mines and even old buildings above ground on old mine sites. Surface remains are just as important as the below ground stuff when it comes to our man-made underground heritage.
The next step is to undo damage already done. This does not necessarily take dedicated trips to do conservation work, but can be done on any trip. It can be as simple as rearranging a protective tape back to where it might have been knocked from, or a glove full of clean water poured over a carelessly placed muddy hand print on a formation. Litter can also be easily picked up on the move and put into an oversuit pocket or ammo box. If one is unlucky enough to be lumbered with a party of people who do not really seem to appreciate their underground trip, then for the sake of the cave or mine, and those that may follow, do not bother showing them the best bits. These should be saved for those that do care and are genuinely interested.
Finally, if you see something that needs doing, but cannot do anything about it yourself, let someone on the club's committee know so that others may take some action. If there is access control by another club or society, let the key issuing officer know. Above all, if in doubt, ASK!