Fires, forest thinning put caves at risk

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A group of cavers is worried that efforts to thin the forest near Payson may have a catastrophic effect on a system of caves that leads to the region's aquifer.

"This is where all that runoff goes. So anything you disturb up there ultimately ends up here," said Brian Rackley, who has explored the cave system for more than 30 years.

Rackley and fellow caver, Keith Burdette, led a CBS 5 News crew hundreds of feet below the surface to point out what they believe is at risk.

"I'm always amazed at nature and I've always been enticed by the lure of the caves, the adventure," said Burdette. "This is geologic time right in front of us. It's seldom seen."

Rackley and Burdette crawled through hundreds of yards of mud, rock, narrow tunnel and large caverns, pointing out rock formations that make this cave system unique in Arizona.

"This is a live cave," said Burdette.

"Because it's alive, it's actually changing and forming. Most caves, at least in Arizona, are dead. They're dry," said Rackley.

But a forest service plan to thin the woods above the caves has this caving team and others worried about unintended consequences. As they explain it, the thick woods act as a filter when rain and runoff flow into the caves. Without that filter, the soil would erode, filling the caves with sediment and silt.

"It could physically fill this room," said Rackley, as he pointed to a cavern roughly 20 feet high and 60 feet long.

The Forest Service plan calls for a buffer zone around the caves, according to documents obtained by CBS 5 News. But the caving community wants the buffer zone to be larger.

Because of the remoteness of the caves, and the fact that few people ever see them, these cavers know they face some challenges in highlighting the area's importance.

"There's revenue up there in the daylight. It's called forest sales, cutting trees. Underground, under here, there's very little revenue for them," said Burdette.

But they believe the beauty and rarity of what you see down here is worth protecting.

"If you're going to save one, this would be the area that you'd want to save," said Rackley.

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