Module 6: Cave Ethics and the Internet

Written by Duane A. McCully (Utah Cave Survey, NSS 39454)

In the United States, there are a vast number of ungated caves that either sit on public lands or sit on private land with no access controls.  Despite the fact that these caves are afforded no formal protection, many of these caves are still in good condition, and an appreciable number are in pristine condition.  One of the major reasons that this is true is because the location of these caves and, in many cases, even the existence of these caves is not known to the general public.  Out of a desire to preserve the condition of these caves, a conservation ethic of keeping cave locations confidential has generally been adopted in the United States.  This concept has been formally adopted by the National Speleological Society and codified into Federal Law (National Speleological Society, 2012a; National Speleological Society, 2012b).  However, in the past decade, there has been increasing divergence from this ethic and the ethics commonly practiced within the caving scene in Utah.  In particular, there is an inordinate amount of information that is being made available to the general public via the publicly accessible internet by the grottos themselves and/or their members.  The purpose of this article is to describe a responsible set of guidelines for publishing cave-related information on the publicly accessible internet.

In order to improve readability, the word internet will be used to mean “publicly accessible internet” throughout the remainder of this article.

Cave Information Prudence

Virtually all human-related activity within a cave has a negative impact on that cave.  The challenge is to balance the reason for the activity with the impact on the cave.  This balance ought to always favor protection of the caves.  Of particular interest is the impact that recreational caving has on any given cave.  Publishing information on the internet about any particular cave that promotes interest by the general public pertaining to that cave and facilitates recreational caving at that cave should be discouraged.  To be clear, it is publishing information on the internet about a particular cave that makes it possible to identify the cave in question that is problematic.  For example, publishing a cave map on the internet informs the general public about that cave’s existence, its name, in many cases the county, the length of the cave, the type and quantity of speleothems within the cave, and how interesting the cave is in general.  This greatly facilitates recreational caving at that cave by the general public, most of who will never attend a grotto meeting nor ever be educated in the principles and techniques of cave conservation.  This is at odds with our mandate to protect these caves.  Publishing an article on the internet that describes how interesting and fun a cave is, provides its name, and shows an entrance photo has a similar effect.  Along the same lines, publishing information on the internet that provides a gated cave’s name and how to accomplish access to it will certainly increase recreational activity within that cave and, in many cases, largely defeats the purpose of installing the gate.

None of the ideas in the preceding paragraph need interfere with our mandate to “promote responsible cave exploration among those interested in caves” (National Speleological Society, 2012c) or limit the ability to produce a quality grotto website.  Indeed, it is quite straightforward to publish interesting articles that are accessible by the general public that do not make it possible to identify any particular cave.  For example, there is a large difference in publishing a photo of a spectacular speleothem on the internet with a caption that reads “Here is an amazing helictite in a Utah Cave” versus a caption that reads “Here is an amazing helictite in Named Cave.”  Likewise, there is a large difference between publishing an article on the internet that shows how to produce a cave map with a sample theoretical map included versus publishing the complete map of an actual cave.  Furthermore, there is an enormous practical difference between providing a kiosk at the entrance of a gated cave describing how to gain access to that cave versus publishing that information on the internet.  Publishing interesting information pertaining to Utah caving on the internet that does not make it possible to identify any particular cave tends to attract potential grotto members seeking further information.  Conversely, publishing interesting information pertaining to Utah caving on the internet that identifies caves by name tends to attract non-grotto members to those caves without them ever needing or wanting grotto involvement, let alone cave conservation training.

There certainly will be a certain amount of recreational caving by grotto members.  Indeed, the majority of caving by grotto members in their first two years of membership is likely to be recreational.  It is during this time that the grottos have an opportunity and a responsibility to instill strong conservation ethics within its membership.  Grotto policy and grotto members should exercise good judgment in the frequency of visits to sensitive caves and practice sound conservation ethics in all caves.  However, facilitating recreational caving by non-grotto members in such a way that they have no reason to ever interact with the grotto does nothing for either the grotto or for the caves and should be avoided.

Cave Location Protection

It has been said that the most destructive thing that can be done to a forest is to build a road through it (Gucinski, H. et al, 2001).  Similarly, the most destructive thing that can be done to a cave is to publish its location.  The National Speleological Society Conservation Policy and section 5 of the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act both acknowledge the location of a cave as sensitive information not suitable for public distribution (National Speleological Society, 2012a; National Speleological Society, 2012b).  Accordingly, we should rededicate ourselves to the proposition that keeping cave locations confidential is one of the most effective ways to protect our caves (Sandeno, 2012).  Very simply, they ought not to be published except in the case of very well-known caves.  To be clear, this means that, from a cave conservation perspective, it is unacceptable to do any of the following on the internet:

  • Publish GPS coordinates for a cave.
  • Publish a description of a cave area that is sufficiently detailed that it can be located based on that information.  For example, saying that there is a cool cave 300 feet east of campsite #4 is undoubtedly sufficient information to locate it.  On the other hand, saying that one went to an amazing cave in Uintah County is probably not sufficient to locate it.  Notice that in these two examples, the cave was not identified by name.
  • Publish road logs to a cave.
  • Publish information that is sufficient for someone to find a cave.  For example, call this number, ask for Joe and ask how to get to Nameless Cave.
  • Describe procedures that are used to conceal a particular cave entrance.
  • Publish links whose target contains any of the above.

To avoid potential ambiguity, the following list of “very well-known caves” is proposed:

  1. Timpanogos Cave
  2. Lehman Caves
  3. Minnetonka Cave
  4. Nutty Putty Cave

Non-Disclosure Agreements

Gated caves provide an opportunity to both educate and commit both grotto and non-grotto members alike to the above conservation tactics.  This can and should be accomplished by incorporating a non-disclosure agreement that enforces the above publication restrictions into the attendant permit.  In order to be effective, the non-disclosure agreement must apply to every person entering the cave, not just the trip leader.

Web Security

Grottos may be desirous to provide certain information to their grotto members on their websites that is unsuitable for the internet.  Obviously, any sort of security breach that exposes this information to the general public represents a serious cave conservation problem.  In order for a members-only area of a website to be minimally acceptable with regard to preventing the information contained within from being accessed by the general public, the following is required:

  1. Each grotto member must have their own login and password.  A common password that everyone shares is unacceptable.
  2. Each username/password must have an expiration date that corresponds to the expiration of the user’s grotto membership.  It is acceptable for the login to continue to work for a SHORT time after the expiration to give the user time to renew their grotto membership.  After the expiration date and the grace period are past, the login must not work.  An ex-grotto member is not a type of grotto member; they are a type of non-grotto member.
  3. Downloadable files within a members-only area must not be accessible by non-grotto members.  In other words, if grotto member A sends non-grotto member B a direct URL to a protected document, the website must prevent non-grotto member B from downloading the document when they attempt to read the URL.  A security architecture that depends on menu traversal provides no actual security.

Web security is a substantially difficult subject.  Grotto leadership and the grotto webmaster should decide if they are willing to commit to implementing and maintaining a security architecture that at least meets the above requirements in order to provide basic protection for sensitive cave data.  They should understand that private areas of such websites are endlessly subjected to increasing advanced attacks from web crawlers, hackers, the general public, and, in some cases, the grotto members themselves.  The inability to implement the simple security architecture described above is a reason to simply not provide such sensitive information via a grotto website.  It is not a reason to lower our conservation standards.

Proposed Publication Ethos

In summary, the following forms the basis of a conservation-minded publication ethos:

  1. Keeping cave locations confidential is the primary method for protecting ungated caves within the United States.
  2. Information that facilitates locating a particular cave ought not to be published on the internet.
  3. Cave maps ought not to be published on the internet.
  4. Information about how to access gated caves that are not managed on-site ought not to be published on the internet.
  5. Photos that show the cave entrance and enough of the surrounding landscape as to be helpful in locating the cave ought not to be published on the internet.
  6. Mentioning caves by name on the internet is discouraged.  In other words, what is encouraged is for trip reports, etc., to be made available to grotto members only or through other media than the internet.
  7. Any grotto website that houses cave information not suitable for the internet ought to protect that data with, at minimum, the security architecture as described above.  In other words, a username and password that is unique to a particular grotto member with an enforced expiration date that corresponds to the expiration date of their grotto membership.
  8. Cave permits ought to include a non-disclosure agreement that applies to every person entering the cave.  This has already proven an effective measure at Neff’s Canyon Cave.

The quantity and type of information pertaining to Utah caves that is currently available on the internet would have been unthinkable ten years ago.  It is time that the Utah grottos take a serious look at the effect that these practices are having on our caves and consider adopting the above publication ethos.


Brandon Kowallis and Dale Green deserve credit for proofreading the draft from which this article is based and providing some suggestions for improvement.  In addition, some additional clarifications were included due to constructive criticism received indirectly by the author from NSS President Wm Shrewsbury.


Gucinski, H., Furniss, M., Ziemer, R., Brookes, M., 2001, Forest roads: a synthesis of scientific information, Gen. Tech. Rep. PNWGTR-509, Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, 103 p.

National Speleological Society, 2012a, The Federal Cave Protection Act of 1988:, [accessed October 21, 2012].

National Speleological Society, 2012b, NSS Conservation Policy:, [accessed October 21, 2012].

National Speleological Society, 2012c, NSS Mission Statement:, [accessed January 2, 2013].

Sandeno, C., 2012, USDA Forest Service, Hoosier National Forest, Protecting the Unknown: [accessed October 22, 2012].