Intruders broke into the crown jewel of Arizona’s state park system over the weekend, leaving a trail of minor damage in one of Kartchner Caverns’ most fragile caves, authorities said Oct. 13.
Suspects forced a door open through the lower portal of the cavern sometime during the night on Oct. 11, officials said.
A living cave complex still being formed by flowing water, Kartchner Caverns was discovered in 1974 in Benson, about 50 miles southeast of Tucson. It was kept secret until the late 1980s to preserve the caves’ various geological formations, which are so delicate, even the most minor contact could be detrimental.
“You can damage them just by bumping into them,” park superintendent Dave Pawlike said. “As you’re walking on the ground, you’re touching formations considered to be flows.”
After combing each cave on Oct. 13, park scientists determined there was only minor damage, Arizona State Parks spokeswoman Ellen Bilbrey said.
The intruders were able to cut off a steel padlock and bolted latch on a steel gate outside the caverns, Pawlik said. They then entered a series of doors which lead to cave tour areas known as the Tarantula Room and the Big Room.
“We noticed mud footprints on the trail. You can see they had gone over the guard rail that entered some areas that are sensitive,” Pawlik said.
Authorities also found an open airlock door. Park officials use the airlock doors to help keep dry, outside air away from the humid, indoor surroundings. A range of straw stalactites also appeared to have been damaged.
Several items of evidence have been recovered, Cochise County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Carol Capas said. She declined to be more specific.
Kartchner Caverns was dedicated as a state park in 1999. About 137,000 visitors come annually.
Park staffers were in the midst of preparing the Big Room, which bat colonies occupy for part of the year, to reopen today (Oct. 15). So far, that date is still scheduled.
Tours at the park have continued as scheduled.
Pawlik said park officials had previously only had to worry about stopping kids from touching formations on a tour.
“I don’t understand why anyone would want to do this,” Pawlik said. “(The staff) were shocked. They’re very committed to the cave. They’ve taken partial ownership of the cave.”
Scientists have been working in the cave to assess the ecological fallout. Meanwhile, the park’s resident electrician will meet with the staff on how to upgrade the security system.
“That’s taking the no. 1 priority,” Pawlik said.