British Columbia Ministry of Forests


Chapter 13: Cave/Karst Management

13.1 Introduction
13.2 Goals
13.3 Roles
13.4 Responsibilities
13.5 Inventory
13.6 Management
13.7 Liaison and Communication
13.8 Safety and Rescue
13.9 References


1 BCFS Cave Management Flow Chart

13.1 Introduction

Caves and karst resources are one of the many recreation features that collectively make up the Provincial Forest recreation resource.

Caves and other karst resources are part of British Columbia's Provincial Forest recreation resources. As road development continues to open up the forest, these resources become more accessible and are used by increasing numbers of people.

Cave management is a unique management challenge.

Caves represent dynamic natural systems that are affected by surface and underground environmental changes. Although similar in many respects to surface resources, cave and karst resources present some unusual management challenges because of the nonrenewable nature of cave contents, the sensitivity of cave and karst ecosystems to the activities of humans, and the inherent hazards associated with their recreational use.

Cave: A cavity in the earth which connects with the surface, may contain a zone of total darkness and is usually large enough to admit a person.

Karst: The topographic feature created by extensive chemical weathering of limestones, gypsum and other rocks by dissolution; geomorphologically characterized by a blocky appearance, tall rock pillars, scarps and sinkholes, and underlain by caves, caverns and underground drainage (streams, etc.).

Over 500 caves have been found throughout British Columbia and have been explored to varying degrees. In addition, there is an unknown number of caves yet to be discovered.

Initially, recreational cavers (spelunkers) were content to explore, photograph and map their finds. However, when some of the more significant caves became vandalized or destroyed through indiscriminate use, recreational or otherwise, individual cavers and caving groups began to lobby government and to advocate cooperative participation in the management of cave and karst resources.

The Ministry of Forests became actively involved in cave management in 1980 with the development of a management plan for Candlestick Cave near Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Authority for this involvement was based on the Ministry's overall resource management responsibilities established in Sections 2 and 3 of the Forest Act, and Section 4 of the Ministry of Forests Act (Chapter 2).

Cave system: An underground network of caves, caverns and passageways in a given area whether continuous or discontinuous from a single surface opening.

In January 1981, a government policy titled "A Statement of Crown Land Cave Policy and Administration" was issued by the Ministry of Lands, Parks and Housing. That policy statement formally charged the Ministry of Forests with the responsibility of identifying, managing and protecting caves in (and under) Provincial Forests.

Limestone: A sedimentary rock generally formed in large, shallow seas and primarily composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3); readily dissolved by carbonic and other weak acids.

Cave and karst formations are limited to limestone areas which, in British Columbia, are found in only a small number of forest regions and districts. This chapter, therefore, represents only a summary of the more detailed draft report, A Method to Manage the Cave/Karst Resources Within British Columbia's Provincial Forests that was prepared by the MoF in 1983 as a discussion paper on cave management.

For more detailed information on cave management, contact the Recreation Branch.

In those areas where cave and karst resources or issues play a significant role in the recreation program, region and district staff and forest licensees may contact the Recreation Branch directly to request additional information and training materials.

In this chapter, Section 13.2 sets out the Ministry's overall goals in cave and karst management.

Section 13.3 outlines the Ministry's basic roles in cave and karst management.

Section 13.4 sets out the Ministry's overall responsibilities in cave and karst management.

Section 13.5 summarizes the procedures for cave/karst inventories.

Section 13.6 outlines the Ministry's management of cave/karst resources.

Section 13.7 discusses the issues of communication and liaison with cave users.

Section 13.8 identifies some safety and rescue considerations.

Section 13.9 gives a list of cited and supplementary references.

Cave Management Symposium held to chart new management directions.

In February 1991, a Cave Management Symposium was held in Campbell River to address cave management issues and chart direction for the management of BC's cave/karst resources. This chapter will be updated to reflect new directions arising from this recent symposium.

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13.2 Goals

Cave management goals are another example of the dual role of the Ministry's recreation program: balancing resource protection with resource use.

The Ministry of Forests primary goals in cave and karst management are to:

  • balance surface resource management and recreational cave use with the protection of significant cave/karst values
  • provide opportunities for cave-related recreational, educational and scientific activities

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13.3 Role

The Ministry of Forests basic roles in cave/karst management are to:

  • prepare a general inventory of caves under its jurisdiction
  • develop and use the New Mexico reference system for cave inventory, classification and record-keeping (Section 13.5)
  • provide communication links between forest companies and cavers on cave- and karst-related issues
  • develop and apply management guidelines to control surface activity where required to protect cave values
  • develop and apply management guidelines for public use of or conduct within caves where required in the interest of cave conservation, speleological research or public safety
  • administer and support research activities by qualified persons or institutions to increase knowledge and improve cave management, and to review research proposals to prevent long-term adverse impact upon the cave/karst resource
  • prepare cave management plans for those caves identifed to require intensive surficial and/or user management
  • monitor and review the above procedures to ensure their effectiveness and to provide a basis for revisions
  • designate, where appropriate, specific caves as forest recreation sites
  • review, prior to issuance, all forms of tenure for commercial cave/karst use

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13.4 Responsibilities

The Ministry of Forests basic responsibilities in cave/karst management are set out in the 1981 government policy titled A Statement of Crown Land Cave Policy and Administration. These responsibilities are to:

  • develop Ministry of Forests cave management policy
  • coordinate cave management policy and liaise with other agencies and provincial outdoor recreation organizations
  • provide advice or assistance
  • interpret cave/karst management policy and provide advice or assistance to districts
  • develop procedural guidelines for districts and monitor district performance
  • provide advice or assistance
  • implement policy and procedures
  • undertake cave and karst feature inventory projects in known karst areas where resource management plans are scheduled within a TSA and require licensees to undertake similar projects within TFLs (Section 6.2)
  • maintain a district cave inventory (Section 13.5) concurrent with the recreation features inventory
  • incorporate cave/karst management prescriptions into resource management plans
  • designate, where appropriate, specific cave/karst features as Forest Service recreation sites
  • approve management plans for specific caves
  • issue Special Use Permits for the management of specific caves and/or karst areas
  • approve memoranda of agreements for cooperative cave management activities with local organizations
  • provide advice or assistance

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13.5 Inventory

Cave and karst resources are inventoried through the use of the Landforms or "L" feature of the recreation inventory (see Chapter 6 for a detailed description of these inventory procedures). For reference purposes, however, the Ministry of Forests basic procedures for cave inventory are summarized below.


The Ministry of Forests cave inventory, classification and record system has been developed from the original "New Mexico System." That system has been used for a number of years in various areas throughout the United States. As detailed in A Method to Manage the Cave/Karst Resources Within British Columbia's Provincial Forests, and summarized below, the original New Mexico system has been modified to meet British Columbia conditions and supplemented with a classification category that rates a cave's appeal to both cavers and the general public. This modified version has been field-tested locally and is easy to apply.


The Ministry of Forests cave inventory is composed of the following basic components:

  • field assessment, including surface and underground inspections
  • a cave inventory and classification card (FS 311) containing the cave name, location, description, classification and management type coded from a key list
  • a reference or file number for each cave, to be used on each cave file and on a pin or tag placed at the entrance of the corresponding cave
  • a master cave location map showing the locations of inventoried caves, together with a map showing general cave areas
  • a permanent reference file on each inventoried cave, containing:
  • inventory and classification records
  • cave history
  • directions to cave entrance
  • photographs or slides
  • cave log (record of entries)
  • record of present or previous management activities

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13.6 Management

Ministry of Forests Management of cave/karst resources is guided by the report, A Method to Manage the Cave/Karst Resources Within British Columbia's Provincial Forests. The management processes and responsibilities are summarized in Figure 1.

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13.7 Liaison and Communication

In dealing with cave users and the general public, the Ministry of Forests should:

  • encourage cavers to become organized among themselves and to act as a communications body for cave/karst management issues under Ministry of Forests jurisdiction
  • encourage organized cavers to identify important cave issues and areas of geographic concern to the Ministry of Forests and forest companies
  • encourage organized cavers and forest companies to establish direct communications to foster cooperation at the operational level
  • identify to caving groups and forest companies the individual staff members at the district level whose duties include responsibility for cave/karst management issues and actions
  • encourage these staff members to establish contact with local cavers and forest company representatives
  • advise organized cavers of the potential for cooperative projects, such as cave inventory, mapping, use monitoring, guiding and interpretation through the development of adopt-a-cave programs, volunteer agreements and Special Use Permits

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13.8 Safety and Rescue

In order to promote public safety and minimize liability risks to the Crown, the Ministry of Forests should:

  • inform the public of the general hazards associated with cave exploration (spelunking)
  • inform the public and user groups of any particular hazards which might not otherwise be apparent
  • communicate cave conservation and safety values to the general public through Ministry information and interpretive signs at appropriate caves under its jurisdiction
  • where special dangers are known to exist in a cave, warn visitors in advance through written warnings (maps, guidebooks, permits, special agreements, signs posted at entry points, etc.)
  • cooperate with local RCMP and caving volunteers in the event of search and rescue operations, and rely upon their expertise to provide search and rescue leadership
  • publicize contacts (BCFS, RCMP, etc) for emergency use within managed caves
  • have caving groups identify caves which may pose a hazard to road-building and logging operations

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13.9 References

Cited References

A Method to Manage the Cave/Karst Resources Within British Columbia's Provincial Forests, Ministry of Forests, 1983.

Cave and Karst Management in Provincial Forests (draft), Ministry of Forests, Vancouver Region, 1986.

A Statement of Crown Land Cave Policy and Administration, Ministry of Lands, Parks and Housing, 1981.

Whitfield, P. 1979. Modified New Mexico Cave Inventory and Classification System.

Forest Act

Ministry of Forests Act

Supplementary References

Larson, J. 1979. U.S. Forest Service Proposed Region Direction for Cave Management. Presented at Far West Regional Cave Management Symposium.