Fern Cave: Alabama’s Great Cave

By Kim Metzgar

While at convention I picked up an autographed copy of Jennifer Ellen Pinkley’s book Fern Cave: The Discovery, Exploration, and History of Alabama’s Greatest Cave. It took me a while to get to reading it, but once I did, it was difficult to put down.

Fern Cave has more than 15 miles of passages, a 437-foot-deep pit, and 18 different levels. So when it’s called Alabama’s greatest cave there is not a lot of room for dispute. Discovered in 1961, the book tells the story of how cavers found and mapped this cave, including Bill Torode, whose efforts were monumental (see previous article, which really made me feel privileged to have him take us to Shelta Cave).

Anyway, what is MOST interesting, among many great threads in this book, at least from a cave conservation standpoint, is how cavers discovered a huge colony of endangered gray bats in the cave. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ended up purchasing four entrances to the cave, and cavers worked as volunteers for over 25 years to manage Fern Cave on behalf of the agency. They created a world-class map of the cave system.

Then White Nose Syndrome hit and the USFWS closed the cave, even to those who managed it.

So, when the back cover blurb says that it is more than a history book, “It’s the story of all the people who worked so hard to explore and understand Fern Cave,” it is true. But it’s not just a story of triumphs. It is also a story of disappointments. Pinkley started writing the book after the cave was closed. She had been exploring the cave starting in 1989 and eventually it became consuming. She and her husband became managers, led studies, biological inventories, as well as mapping. They, too, were shut out of the cave.

The huge gray bat colony in the cave—a project that got famed Bat Conservation International founder Merlin Tuttle his start—played a role, as did White Nose Syndrome. About 95 percent of the entire gray bat population hibernates in just a few caves, perhaps 0.1 percent of caves having their winter hibernation requirements, and about 2.4 percent of caves matching their summer requirements.

Working with Tuttle, who was just a young student, cavers undertook a bat banding project in Fern, They migrated in Florida, it was learned…. Tuttle helped put together the story of how they migrated long distances, how they succeeded, and why they might die during the winter. Huntsville cavers—way back in 1974—enacted a moratorium in the Morgue section of the cave to protect the bats. Following his studies, Tuttle applied for endangered status for the gray bats and in 1976 they were put on the list. Six years later he founded BCI.

Tuttle and biologists began an effort to help protect the bats and to help them recover, which involved protecting critical cave habitat, buying bat caves.

Tuttle recommended that the USFWS buy the entire cave system, since it was already tasked with trying to help the species recover.

The agency purchased 199 acres that included the Morgue entrance, as well as some others. The original Fern Cave, including Surprise Pit, was not part of the deal. Since there were no connections between Surprise Pit and the Morgue, cavers didn’t think Surprise would have an impact on the bats, so the agency didn’t buy the pit. Once the agency acquired it, the land became a satellite refuge of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, a large refuge in Decatur, Alabama.

A permit system, as well as moratorium on winter visits to the Morgue, was put into place in the early 1980s. Huntsville Grotto members regularly worked on the cave in various projects after receiving a special use project. They had an access coordinator, JV Van Swearingen, who took great care to monitor the visitation and help cavers self-police the cave.

Pinkley writes:

“JV also started to think about the long-term goals of his job. His first priority was protecting the cave and the bats, and he was satisfied that the number of people visiting the cave in general was about right (approximately 200 in 1989). That number included some people, like JV, who visited the cave multiple times a year. At this rate, about a trip a week, cavers were visiting the cave on a regular basis, serving as what JV described as an ‘indirect, passive police system.’ JV thought that the number of cavers visiting the refuge was adequate to catch anyone who might try to sneak into the cave and cause mischief.

“… JV also felt strongly about allowing people to visit the cave and learn its secrets. ‘The primary goal in the management of Fern Cave is keeping this area in as much of a pristine state as possible,’ JV wrote. ‘This could of course be easily accomplished by simply closing the cave and allowing no further access, but such a policy is counterproductive. The Grotto and the management of the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge are both aware that cavers must visit the cave to maintain our knowledge base of the cave. If cavers are not allowed access to the cave, then in a few short years we will have a 15 mile long cave of which little is known. Because written reports and photographic documentaiton are insufficient for navigating in Fern Cave, sport caving is encouraged. It is the only way to maintain our knowledge base of the cave. This knowledge base also provides a basis for scientific study of the cave. Since it is unlikely that any visiting scientist would have any knowledge of the layout of the cave, they would certainly need our assistance in conducing research.’”

Pinkley noted:

“The management approach put in place by Wheeler and the Huntsville Grotto worked. It really worked. JV’s annual reports showed a fairly low level of traffic every year, usually no more than 200 people visiting the cave. Most years, considerably fewer than 200 people visited…. JV firmly believed that the diligence and attention of Grotto members helped substantially reduce the number of people who tried to sneak into the cave without a permit. Cavers visiting the cave provided an extra level of protection, and we all assumed that the bats were well protected too.”

The Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc. (SCCi) and Swearingen were heavily involved in buying and leasing significant caves in the southeast. The owner wasn’t willing to sell, but did agree, in 1997, to a 99-year lease of Surprise Pit.
The reputation of Surprise Pit caused more visitation, including some who did not have as much experience as they should. But even with experienced cavers, there were mishaps, albeit only a few. The most serious was the death of Alexia Hampton, an experienced vertical caver and photographer, who had an accident on rope and who died in the cave. No precise cause was ever determined, although some believe a rock dislodged and struck her unconscious while she was rappelling. In any case, That tragic accident occurred the same year the SCCi leased the cave.

Swearingen died of cancer in 2001, and the cave lost one of its strongest protectors.

The SCCi bought Surprise Pit in 2008, but five months later closed in due to WNS. The cave stayed closed until 2012.

Pinkley and her husband, Steve Pitts, took over management duties.

As WNS spread to the southeast, and throughout the country, the USFWS closed all caves on its land and recommended the halt of recreational caving.

“I remember wondering,” Pinkley wrote, “what in the world they were talking about. What the announcement meant was that the FWS wanted people to stop going into every single cave, on both public and private land, in any state affected by WNS or any state next to one affected by WNS.”

Of course the agency closed Fern and revoked the special use permit of the cave managers.

“At first, even though I was surprised,” Pinkley wrote, “I actually wasn’t hugely upset. I was frankly more worried that the bats I’d come to love in Fern Cave would all be dead within a year. I started to have nightmares about visiting the hibernaculum and finding the floor littered with a carpet of velvety gray bats, all dead, all rotten…. Because I’d had such positive experiences with my few local FWS contacts and biologist friends in Alabama over the years, I trusted the local, regional and national branches of the FWS to work with cavers and to treat us like partners as we moved forward…. I naively thought that if biologists knew that cavers were willing to work with them—if they saw that we were cleaning our gear and following the rules—they’d relax their restrictions and invite cavers to play a more active role in protecting bats from WNS. After all, cavers had a huge amount of exerience, not just with caves, but also with bats. We were some of the pioneers in educating the public about the value of bats, and we had worked hard to protect and conserve them.”
Pinkley and her husband didn’t visit the cave for two and a half years, other than a few entrance checks. They did do a monotiring trip at the request of the USFWS in 2010, and another in 2011.

“Back in 2009, the media had picked up on the musing of some biologists and extremist groups who speculated that cavers were spreading WNS. Articles began to appear that included maddening little snippets like this: cavers visit a cave and step on dirt with WNS spores. Then, when they set foot in another cave, they introduce WNS to that cave. It’s all cavers’ fault!”

Pinkley write that “my irritation at new management policies continued to grow. People who really didn’t know anything about caves were accusing people just like me—people who had voluntarily spent their lives and their free time protecting caves and bats—of not caring about bats.”

In 2011 on a guano collecting trip made at the request of the USFWS, Pinkley and her husband discovered spray paint arrows. Following the trail of spray paint, they found initials, HR, and more paint and etchings in the rock.

“I was torn between wanting to cry, wanting to throw something, and wanting to hunt down and strangle the people who did this to such a fantastic cave,” Pinkley wrote. “I was now more than mad. I was furious. mostly, I was furious at the FWS total cave closure policy. I blamed that policy for providing ideal conditions for people to sneak into the cave with no screening, no exposure to cave conservation ethics, and no education about why the bats must not be disturbed…. The same thing would happen in any cave that was closed completely without a bombproof gate on the entrance. Steve had warned people, but nobody had listened. Now we were seeing the results. And the results were terrible…. This was the first time I felt in my bones that bureaucracies and policies and plans were actually harming cave protection and bat conservation…Instead of aiding in cave and bat conservation, the cave closure eliminated the excellent monitoring and screening system that once limited Fern’s visitors to competent, responsible cavers. The cave closure only succeeded in keeping responsible cavers out, while throwing down a welcome mat to those who don’t follow the rules. The cave closure was bad for Fern Cave and very bad for protecting the gray bats.”

Pinkley is an excellent writer and storyteller, and does a great job weaving in accounts of historic exploration of Fern Cave with her own recollections. Buy the book. Not only will you be rewarded with a story of conserving a cave, protecting and studying gray bats, exploration and discovery, and great photos of this TAG classic, proceeds benefit the SCCi and the National Speleological Society Archives. Pinkley’s website is jenniferpinkley.com.