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Montana High School Students Help With Cave Mapping Project At Grand Canyon National Park


A Montana high school student works on inventory cave formations at Grand Canyon National Park. NPS photo.

While the showcase of Grand Canyon National Park is a big hole in the ground, there are smaller holes that lead into the park's basement. Recently a group of Montana high school students helped park staff inventory some of those caves.

Five students from the Bigfork High School Cave Club in Bigfork, Montana, spent a week in the park back in April to work alongside Steve Rice, the park's hydrologist and cave resources manager to inventory caves, examine impacts, and do repeat photography of several backcountry cave sites.

“The project was a great fit with the America’s Great Outdoor Initiative, launched by President Obama in April 2010,” says Todd Nelson, the park's volunteer coordinator. “The president made a promise to future generations and called upon the Department of the Interior and Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality to lead the effort of developing an agenda for 21st-century conservation and for reconnecting Americans to our nation’s lands and waters.”

That agenda encompasses four key goals:  1) make the outdoors relevant to today’s young people: make it inviting, exciting, and fun; 2) ensure that all young people have access to outdoor places that are safe, clean, and close to home; 3) empower and enable youth to work and volunteer in the outdoors; and 4) build upon a base of environmental and outdoor education, both formal and informal.

"Through this project, the group has gained experience in the outdoors through service learning, which will cultivate outdoor skills and build stewardship ethic into the future," said Mr. Nelson.

The students and their sponsor, Hans Bodenhamer, to date have spent more than 400 hours in the park volunteering on this project.  Mr. Bodenhamer spent years caving in Grand Canyon in the 1980s and is an early supporter of cave conservation and monitoring in the area.  The results of this study will be used to monitor resource conditions over time and help develop management strategies in the future, a park release said.

The Bigfork High School Cave Club was formed by Mr. Bodenhamer in 2005 to provide students with opportunities to participate in outdoor activities while also working with land management agencies to restore and conserve fragile cave resources.  The club completed several projects in Montana during the past few years, and in 2010 received the President’s Environmental Youth Award for their conservation work on caves in Glacier National Park. They were invited to present their project at the 2010 International GIS Users Conference in San Diego to an audience of 10,000.

During the Glacier project, Mr. Bodenhamer became interested in completing a similar project with his students in Grand Canyon National Park.  The club collected funds from a variety of sources starting in 2009, and in April the group travelled to Grand Canyon to spend a week applying their conservation skills. 

During the course of the week, the group visited 10 caves below the South Rim, took almost 500 photographs, 100 of which were repeats of historical photos from the 1960s-1980s, to look for changes over time.  Additionally, maps were created locating and identifying cave features, biological resources, temperature, humidity, and other data. Since completion of the field work component, the students have been compiling and digitizing the data to create maps and layers in a GIS format to better visualize cave locations and the extent of damage, caused by visitation, to those caves over time.

The project was mutually beneficial to both the National Park Service and the students. Not only did the students spend a memorable week hiking and exploring rarely visited sections of Grand Canyon, they spent time collecting important information on the present condition of several backcountry cave sites. 

“The data will most certainly be used in future decisions on cave management,” said Mr. Rice. “The project has opened the door to similar projects in the future, providing youth a memorable backcountry experience while collecting natural resource information imperative to conserving cave resources for future enjoyment and research.”

Mr. Rice is to present results of this research project at the National Speleological Society annual meeting in Colorado in July.


This sounded like a
great hands-on experience for the students. The most important thing is that it
teaches them a deep sense of appreciation for the outdoors that they will
always take with them and hopefully share with their peers.

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