Onyx Cave Environmental Restoration

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Onyx Cave Environmental Restoration

Postby Cheryl Jones » Dec 21, 2006 1:14 pm

Cave biologist shares his knowledge

(NSS Member) William Elliott finds his calling in Missouri, with its many caves and karst topography.

Ann Keyes
For the News-Leader
Ozarks Outdoors

The history beneath ground is vast; the chill of the large cavern below the mountain west of Rolla preserves much of the cave's record. Past an entrance 100 feet wide and 40 feet high, a one-acre room served as a shelter for Woodland Indians. Later, Imperial Onyx Company carted out carloads of sparkling marble from underneath Onyx Mountain. The stone adorned the exteriors of grand structures across Missouri.

Still later, Onyx became a commercial cave; tour guides wowed audiences with tales of black bears hibernating in the cave, the storytellers showing off bowl-shaped pits bears used for sleeping. The bears are history at Onyx now too, leaving behind salamanders that slither about and small bats hanging from low ceilings; brown frogs sit in chilly waters of an underground river.

Onyx Mountain Caverns is changing again — or reverting. The U.S. Forest Service purchased the property in July from longtime private operators. The forest service hopes the cavern will serve as a haven for gray and Indiana bats, the latter an endangered species. Onyx is but one Missouri cave important to William Elliott, cave biologist in the resource science division of the Missouri Conservation Department.

"They are trying to restore it ecologically," Elliott says. "(MDC) has been involved in a restoration project with the forest service and the caving community to clean up the cave. The cave will eventually be available for scientific and educational projects. All the electric lights have been removed and the cave has returned to a more natural condition. It's kind of an experiment, really, to take something that has been altered to human use and be returned to a more natural condition."

Each day brings another cave or another question for the 60-year-old Elliott. The job is a good fit, he admits, as he's been taken with caves since he was a teen. Growing up in Texas, Elliott says the large state has tons of caves but not the karst-ripe topography of Missouri.

"The term karst refers to landscapes that have lots of caves, sinkholes, significant ground water and large springs," says Elliott. "In Missouri that's a very important subject because so many people rely on groundwater. My job is to do science, conservation and education. I try to do all three of those; sometimes we accomplish all three simultaneously. We teach about what we're doing at meetings and to the public. I'm here all the time, and people call asking about caves and bats."

On the job since 1998, Elliott goes into caves two times a week on average, he says. While possibly the most fun part of his job, other outings are just as important. Elliott says the wealth of information offered by MDC in regard to the state's caves brings questions and comments from people around the world.

"Missouri is called the cave state, as well as the Show-Me State," says Elliott, giving credit for much Missouri cave knowledge to researchers who came before him. "In Missouri we have (more than) 6,000 known caves. Caves are a major resource here. (More than) 500 miles of known cave passages have been mapped. That is not insignificant. Missouri is famous for its big, old, wet muddy caves with lots of neat things in them."

Elliott shares his knowledge of caverns with others working in related fields.

"He's really broad in his responsibilities that deal with caves and different kinds of cave organisms, and the study and protection of them, including some bats," says Lynn Robbins, a professor of biology at Missouri State University who studies bats. "He's very, very good, especially at getting people together and organizing groups to try and protect the various aspects of cave biology."

Elliott looks to bring people together at Powder Valley Nature Center near St. Louis in October. The "Cave State" will host the 2007 National Cave & Karst Management Symposium. Elliott expects cavern experts from all over the United States to speak to their areas of expertise, and hopes the public will attend the meetings.

"It's all part of a system, the groundwater that flows for many miles to the caves to the springs," Elliott says. "The water quality can be so damaged by pollution, low-level pollution or increased run-off from poor land-use practices that carry sediments underground, runoff from highways, pipeline spills, highway spills of toxic chemicals. It's something that really should concern the average citizen of this state even if they never go in a cave."

http://www.news-leader.com/apps/pbcs.dl ... 10347/1037
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Cheryl Jones
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