The cave is his classroom, the environment his passion
I picked up my candle lantern and entered the cool, damp and dark Crystal Cave at Sequoia National Park. I had paid my fare to take candlelit tour at dusk, hiked down the steep mountainside and prepared to enter the cave’s gaping mouth with a handful of park visitors, expecting to see fanged bats in the shadows.
And then came the cave naturalist and tour guide, Billy Dooling, 26, who promptly reminded the group to hold the candle upright, not to touch any of the dagger-like stalactites or stalagmites, and to not worry about the bats …because there were none.
Bummer, I thought to myself, blinking to see in the flickering darkness. The 48-degree chill crawled up my spine and I shuddered as the gigantic cavern opened up to reveal hundreds of ghoulish calcite formations that had spent millions of years twisting and warping in the marbled sanctuary.
Of 280 caves in the park, Crystal Cave is the only one open to the public, but is inaccessible without a professional guide, such as Dooling.
A biology graduate from Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, Dooling works for the nonprofit organization Sequoia Natural History Assn. and has spent his first season as a guide educating visitors about cave conservation. It was about halfway through the tour when I realized Dooling was going beyond the history of the cave, informing us of its future and how we can help keep it intact.
I connected with him soon after to learn more about his role as a national park tour guide, active environmentalist and undercover educator.
I am from Jefferson City, Missouri. Growing up in the outdoors, hunting, fishing, kayaking, and hiking, then moving to St. Louis, I realized how much we are impacting the environment. Coming from a small town, you sometimes take for granted the simple splendors of nature. It wasn't until I got to college that I realized how important it is to give back. That's when I joined the Missouri Master Naturalists, Missouri Stream Team and various caving organizations. All of these groups are volunteer oriented and help secure funding to protect our natural resources.
Why do you want to educate park visitors?
When I think of all the people who grow up in cities, rarely experiencing the woods or forests without paved trails through them, I get worried. People are so caught up in their day-to-day life that no consideration for the environment is taken. Even here in our national parks, where we have trash bins and recycle bins side-by-side, our staff sifts through the waste just to pick out recyclables that were carelessly thrown into the trash every day. Most people care about the environment, but sometimes people just need help seeing the big picture.
How do you help them see the bigger picture in a cave?
All the cave naturalists here are encouraged to develop their own interpretive theme for their tours. My theme is "change." I talk about the natural changes in cave involving the unique geological processes that formed the passageways and formations. I also talk about the human-implemented changes through the cave. The construction of the trails, the gate and the lights are all part of the original development of Crystal Cave. Some of those human-implemented changes are beneficial, while others (blasting and trail construction) had more harmful impacts on the cave. But by looking at the bigger picture, visitors can see that by us isolating these impacts to just one cave, we are protecting the other 280 caves in the park.
After all this, I relate to the visitors the impacts we have on caves from the surface. I ask them, "Who thinks a cave is impacting you at home?" or, "Who thinks you are impacting a cave at home?" While I raise my hand, most people don't. So I put it in perspective. I'm from rural Missouri, where everyone gets their water from the ground or a well. If all we are doing is filling our groundwater sources with nasty pollutants, well, that's bad news for us. People can understand that our livelihoods are directly related to caves and underground aquifers, and what we do on the surface isn’t just impacting caves and the delicate wildlife found in caves, but impacting us too. This finally gets the wheels turning in their heads.
All those unique, natural changes that happen in caves won't matter if we're not willing to change what we do on the surface and the way we think about caves. Some people may have started my tour just thinking caves were dark, creepy, scary places, but hopefully somewhere along the line I changed the way people think about caves. When I start relating our impacts on the environment to caves via groundwater pollution, people start to see the big picture. And from all the people at the end of my tour who are nodding, agreeing that it's in our best interest to protect caves, if only one of them takes it to the next level and changes a part of his or her life to better the environment, well, my job has been done.
Are you planning to take your passion for caves and environmental education further?
For the future, I'm not sure. Ideally, I would like to apply my biological background to a cave research position. I'm in the process of applying for such a position at Carlsbad. However, I will continue to do my part through volunteering and educating no matter where or what I'm doing.
Photo #1: Inside Crystal Cave, in Sequoia National Park. Credit: Anacleto Rapping, Los Angeles Times.
Photo #2: Narualist Billy Dooling. Credit: National Park Service