SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - For nearly a century, southern Utah's largest cave has drawn a mishmash of serious explorers, untrained spelunkers, Boy Scouts, teenage revelers, vandals, litterbugs and drinkers.
Now, after years of restoration work - including intensive sandblasting to get rid of graffiti and the removal of untold bags of garbage - the Bureau of Land Management is looking to tighten access to the 1.3-mile long Bloomington Cave.
A proposal now up for public comment would add locked gates at the cave's two entrances and limit entry to those with permits, which would be free and limited to 50 per day. Caving equipment such as reliable lighting and hard hats also would be required.
Jimmy Tyree, director of the BLM's field office in St. George, said the gates and new rules could be in place by this summer.
The change has been a long time coming, he said. Graffiti once greeted every visitor and trash littered many of the cave's labyrinthine passages and caverns. Some visitors lit campfires and others left thousands of feet of string behind as a way to find their way through the cave's six levels.
"There needed to be some sort of management controls in place," Tyree said.
Located about 15 miles west of St. George, the cave has a long, colorful history. There's evidence that American Indians spent time there, and inscribed names go back to the 1920s and 1930s.
The cave later became popular with touring students and teenagers looking for a place to party.
At one point in 1952, officials dynamited the cave's entrance because they were worried is was no longer safe. Teenagers quickly removed the rubble and reopened the entrance. Another attempt to shut off the entrance two years later also failed.
The cave became a popular target for graffiti with the advent of spray paint decades ago.
"The degradation has been going on a long time," said Kyle Voyles, a cave specialist at Arizona's Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument who has helped map Bloomington Cave.
The BLM put up an information kiosk near the entrance to the cave but it was damaged in a wildfire in 2006 and destroyed by vandals last year. It has since been replaced.
The proposed permitting system would include requirements for proper equipment and information about "cave etiquette."
The changes also may benefit some of the cave's lesser-seen residents. BLM officials believe the number of Townsend's big-eared bats declined as more people visited the cave. The agency is hoping the permit system will lessen the pressure on the bats' habitat.
The BLM's office in St. George is taking public comment on the proposal through Feb. 25.
On the Net:
Plan at: http://tinyurl.com/ah8syk
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)