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Ground Down: Despite value, urban caves prove hard to protect 

Perhaps only in the obscure world of cave exploration could a relatively cave rich area like Bend find its foremost expert in the form of

click to enlarge Image: urban caves like this one have taken their fair share of abuse as bend grows.
  • Image: urban caves like this one have taken their fair share of abuse as bend grows.
Perhaps only in the obscure world of cave exploration could a relatively cave rich area like Bend find its foremost expert in the form of a pizza delivery driver. But that's what seems to be the case, at least as it relates to the Horse system and local caver Matt Skeels, who has dedicated a huge amount of his free time to exploring and inventorying the network of lava caves that stretches from the flank of Newberry Caldera to the industrial area on Redmond's east side.

The caves are no secret, most people who have been around Central Oregon for a few years have either heard of, or poked around in some of the Horse system lava caves. But lately they've been getting a little more attention - at least from cavers like Skeels who are keenly aware that urbanization can quickly degrade cave habitat for bats and other - sometimes rare - creatures. Yet, in some ways the growth can be a mixed blessing for cavers and conservationists who know that with increase exposure will come more opportunities for preservation, but also more risk of degradation.


click to enlarge Image: urban caves like this one have taken their fair share of abuse as bend grows.
  • Image: urban caves like this one have taken their fair share of abuse as bend grows.
For example, Skeels was recently commissioned, along with another local caver, by the Department of State Lands to survey a series of caves on its property near the city's public works facilities on the southeast side. The information could be used to help protect the caves from development and vandalism, depending on funding and other land use decisions. Skeels, who has been exploring the local lava tubes since he was a high school student in Bend, estimates that there are 30 to 40 caves in and around the city, not including caves located near Bend on Forest Service land. A soft-spoken guy with sandy blonde hair who drives an out-of-production VW Rabbit with the bumper sticker "Caver In Car," Skeels juggles his time between the aforementioned pizza delivery job, fatherhood and his duties as chairman of the local caving club, The Oregon High Desert Grotto. He is also working on a reference book about the local cave system that he hopes to complete in the next year.

Skeels caught the caving bug as a teenager after happening on an old brochure for the annual meeting of the National Speleological Society in Bend. The brochure, which Skeels guesses was never intended for public distribution, included a guidebook for several local caves. Given how closely cavers tend to guard such information it was sort of like finding a real treasure map in your cereal box.

"As a rule, cavers don't give out locations to caves," Skeels said. "Once you tell one person and they tell another person and by the time it gets to the 20th person they have the wrong intentions."

So Skeels may not have been going exactly by the rulebook when he brought me, my camera and his six-year-old son out to do some cave exploring recently.

click to enlarge urban caves like this one have taken their fair share of abuse as bend grows.
  • urban caves like this one have taken their fair share of abuse as bend grows.
urban caves like this one have taken their fair share of abuse as bend grows.But if the well-worn path from the parking turnout and the graffiti on the cave entrance weren't a giveaway, then the name sure was. We had arrived, Skeels told me, at Garbage Cave #1. Surveying the small entrance to the cave no further explanation was needed-torn sheets of weathered plastic sheeting and an old sour cream tub mixed with other pieces of stray trash to nearly plug the entrance.

Skeels knows the cave well, which once served as part of a private landfill on the property. It's one of the roughly dozen that he surveyed on behalf of Department of States Lands in southeast Bend on a parcel known as Section 11. The state has been lobbying aggressively to get the land included in the city's ongoing urban growth boundary (UGB) expansion. If the state were successful, the area could become one of Bend's next large-scale master planned neighborhoods - think Northwest Crossing in the Juniper forest. And therein lies the conundrum for cavers like Skeels who relish the access they have to caves, but are also keenly aware of the threat posed by over use and outright abuse.

Yet despite its name, Garbage Cave #1 is in relatively good shape. After strapping on a CCM ice hockey helmet and a headlamp, I wriggled through a small entrance, pushing my feet into the cool darkness. After sliding over some rather rank garbage I popped my head into the cave and found that it opened into a massive room nearly 100 feet deep with a large vaulted ceiling that was 15 feet or more at its highest point.

Skeels then guided his son and I back over a large outcropping where the cave opened into a second taller vault. Prodded by our guide, we scrambled rather blindly over sharp angular rocks to a third chamber. We arrived in the lavasicle room, a low-ceilinged annex whose walls and roof were covered in row upon row of what look like small, polished molten nipples that glistened suggestively with droplets of subterranean moisture. It could have been Bruce Wayne's Bat Cave.

On the grand scale of caving, which includes rappelling into caverns and subterranean lakes, this was beginner's stuff. But it's a clue as to what fuels the interest of the small but dedicated band of local cave explorers - there are only about a dozen active members in the local grotto, according to Skeels.

"You're involved in this unusual beauty. Most Oregonians don't even realize what they're driving over. It's unfortunate that most of the caves around here have been pilfered," said Brent McGregor, a local furniture maker who has been active in the local caving club for about three years.

McGregor said he doesn't really know what drew him into underground exploration, but that it probably has to do with his affinity for the unusual.

"I've always been attracted to the freaks of nature," he said. "I work a lot with juniper trees and I look for the really interesting trees that aren't going to go through a mill. I see that sense of unusual things in nature and that attracts me to them. I find that over and over."

Not everyone is as philosophical. We found plenty of evidence of abuse. Even in the lavacicle room. A previous visitor, presumably inspired by such subtle and austere beauty, had christened the room with a beer bottle.

Walking around the Section 11 caves it's easy to see why the Department of State Lands has been pushing for its inclusion in the UGB. The property affords expansive views of the Cascade Range and sits on the desirable edge of vast amounts of federal land-the state actually obtained the property in a land swap deal with the Bureau of Land Management in the late 1990s.

While Skeels would like to see the entire Horse system protected and conserved for future generations, he knows that's not likely to happen and he's the first to admit it.

click to enlarge urban caves like this one have taken their fair share of abuse as bend grows.
  • urban caves like this one have taken their fair share of abuse as bend grows.
urban caves like this one have taken their fair share of abuse as bend grows.For the time being, the Garbage Cave and the rest of the DSL land remains outside of the current UGB proposal. But the state has filed a formal objection and is hoping the city will reconsider. If it does, the city will have to figure out how to deal with the caves, which the city staff, by its own admission, hasn't given much thought to up to this point.

"We don't have an inventory of the caves in the expansion area, so we don't know with a great deal of accuracy where the caves are located," said Brian Rankin, a long-range planner at the city.

But given the dozens of other confirmed caves on the east side of the city - where the bulk of the UGB expansion is slated - it's likely that the city will have to tackle the issue of cave conservation, regardless of whether Garbage Cave or any of the other Section 11 lands are brought into the city.


 

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