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The Hellhole Issue in brief
- by Devin Kouts and Gordon Brace
Hellhole cave is located in the middle of Germany Valley, West Virginia. Greer Lime Company operates an open pit quarry located directly west of the cave.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) recognizes Hellhole as a critical habitat for two species of endangered (and federally protected) bat, the Indiana Bat (Myotis sodalis ) and the Virginia Big Ear (Corynorhinus townsendii virginianus) . USF&WS has made Greer Lime Company aware of their responsibility to avoid damage to this endangered species habitat, and to protect the rare biota living there. To the quarry's credit they have maintained a buffer zone of 250 feet, and an additional 250 feet restricted blast zone from the nearest known passage in Hellhole.
What makes Hellhole such an attractive habitat for these bats is its low air temperature. Most caves in West Virginia average around 57 degrees Fahrenheit but Hellhole's average is around 47 degrees. It stays this cold because it naturally traps and holds cold air. Located in the middle of an enclosed valley, and having only one entrance (a critical factor), all the cold air that flows off the nearby mountainside each winter collects in the cave. Simple physics are at work; the cold air sinks, and having no lower entrance to escape by, it fills the cave's massive passages. This cold air collecting phenomena is unique and the reason why the cave is so vulnerable to accidental damage from quarrying activities. If this natural cold air trap is breached, at an elevation lower than the entrance, all the cold air will flow out, ruining the cave as a bat hibernaculum.
Since exploration began in the 1940's, cavers have mapped approximately 8.5 miles of passage in Hellhole. Most of the large passages in the cave are located in the New Market Limestone, the same rock unit that the quarry mines.
The landowner does not wish to sell the land surrounding the entrance to Hellhole. The quarry has leased the entrance to Hellhole from the owner, and as the leasee, denies most access to the cave. The quarry does allow the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WV DNR) to conduct bi-annual trips into the cave for the purpose of counting the populations of the endangered bat species.
The quarry, with urging from WV DNR began to allow limited exploration of the cave after leasing the entrance (one or two trips per year). These trips were all limited to 24 hours in duration, with only limited personnel involved. The first few years of this relationship did not produce much new passage. Trips were spent primarily checking leads marked on the old survey maps.
|Figure 1. Gordon Brace at the "turn-around" point in the Northwest Passage, 1995. The passage continues around the bend beyond Gordon and is virgin territory to this day.|
In 1996, with access to Krause Hall and the northwestern portion of the cave temporarily blocked, the survey crews pushed the breakdown area off of the Bat Room. This led to a new section of borehole, and one of the deepest sections of the cave, at over 400 feet below the entrance elevation. The area was mapped and leads marked for the next years effort.
The following year, 1997, a break-through discovery off of this area extended the known extent of Hellhole well to the south of its originally known range. This break-through showed cavers and geologists alike that the historically known portions of Hellhole were a mere side passage to a much larger cave system. The new discovery was in fact the core, or main trunk segment, of the Hellhole cave system, with an 1800 foot section of massive borehole, most of it 60 feet wide with a 100 foot ceiling. There are numerous large going leads in this area. A dome and canyon complex has yet to be mapped, as well as a 150 by 200 foot room. Strong air issues from leads in the floor of this last room.
With the advent of this discovery, the quarry lost what had been perceived to be a valuable piece of limestone to the endangered species habitat. From that point forward Greer Industries has permitted no further exploration of Hellhole. A contributing factor to this could be the issue of a caver breaking his leg on the last survey trip. This resulted in one of the largest cave rescues in West Virginia history.
It is probable that the quarry does not wish to lose any further areas of limestone to Hellhole cave. By denying access to the cave, the quarry effectively impedes "knowledge" of the cave's extent. This does not however change the actual physical extent of the cave, only what is known about it. It is highly likely that quarry operations, conducted with a lack of knowledge regarding the cave's complete extent, will in time penetrate some portion of the cave. Such an event will have disastrous effects upon the unique climatic conditions within Hellhole and ruin its suitability as an endangered species hibernaculum.
Updated: October 16, 2000