Nature Conservancy buys land to protect Indiana's Lost River caves

February 21, 2003

By George McLaren
Indianapolis Star

ORLEANS, Ind. (AP) -- Milky-white crayfish skitter through a shallow pool like tiny ghosts with claws.

Their antennae measure as long as their bodies, and their heads have tiny round bumps where eyes should be. Eyes wouldn't do them any good more than 50 feet underground in the Lost River Cave system.

Few Hoosiers will ever see these finger-sized crustaceans, or the blind cavefish, protected amid rocks and crevices deep underground.

But their home's seclusion does not guarantee the safety of these or other rare and endangered species.

That's why The Nature Conservancy of Indiana recently bought 213 acres of land above.

"The main thing was to prevent development," said Steve Grubbs, a land protection specialist for the nonprofit conservancy. "They could have sold it off in one-acre lots. Septic problems were the main threat."

The water that makes up the Lost River in Orange County and flows down into the cave drains 48 square miles of watershed above ground.

Sometimes the river brings farm chemicals or soil runoff or junk that people have dumped into sinkholes above. Sometimes it brings contamination from failing septic systems.

Conservancy officials hope they can reduce such pollutants by protecting what's on top. Access to the property will be limited, and development and new septic systems will be banned.

Grubbs declined to say how much the property cost. It was sold by a local family no longer farming the land. The conservancy anticipates selling the land to the Hoosier National Forest once federal funding is approved.

The family was interested in protecting the land, said Orange Circuit Judge Larry Blanton, whose late father farmed it. Family members, who were unable to farm it anymore, didn't want to sell it, then see it carved into tiny lots.

"People can go out and do pretty much, well, what they damn well please with the land. We didn't want to see that happen," Blanton said.

He declined to disclose the selling price, but noted that the family probably lost at least $100,000 by not turning to developers.

"The only solution was, we wanted to find somebody who had an interest in preserving the land as it is. The Nature Conservancy provided us with that opportunity. There will never be any housing on it, never be any construction. It will go back to nature."

Though the rolling southern Indiana farmland above the cave is scenic, there's nothing to signal what lies beneath: a complex cave system certain to become the longest in the state as soon as the mappers can find their way through it all. So far, they've measured 17.11 miles of passages.

They've also discovered hundreds of openings, or "leads," they haven't explored yet.

"In a normal cave survey, the cave is about two miles long, with three leads," said veteran caver Tony Cunningham, who is helping to map the Lost River cave system. A huge system, like Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, would contain about 200 leads.

At last count, mappers had found 347 unexplored leads in the Lost River Cave System.

"When it got to 100, we were really nervous," Cunningham said. "When it got to 200, we were apoplectic. When it got to 300, we didn't give a s- - - anymore."

Cunningham said no one doubts the cave will be declared the longest in Indiana after further exploration, since the two longest caves already measured are 20 to 21 miles in length.

All are in Indiana's "karst" country, spanning the southern part of the state.

Named for a geologically similar area in eastern Europe, karst is characterized by limestone formations that have honeycombed into cracks and passages after being eroded by water draining through over thousands of years.

Indiana has more than 2,600 caves totaling more than 300 miles of passages, according to the Indiana Cave Survey, a group that keeps a database.

Orange County ranks fourth, with 240 caves. The Lost River cave system is named for the waterway that flows nearby. It rolls along like any other Hoosier stream -- until the bottom falls out and the water disappears underground.

The water tumbles through holes or cracks leading to passages below. Most of the time, that leaves about 20 miles of dry stream bed until the water is forced up again at a "rise" southwest of Orleans. During heavy rains, parts of the stream bed will run again when underground passages fill up.

One of the spots where water reappears is Wesley Chapel Gulf, a 12-acre bowl in the ground. Depending on how much rain has fallen, Wesley Chapel is either a placid pond or a turbulent whirlpool nearly filling the entire gulf.

Nearby, there are several openings to Lost River Cave and other interconnected caverns. They're not marked or advertised for cavers, and several have steel gates barring entry.

That's to prevent vandalism and to protect against spelunkers.


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