Fall 2014

Fighting Fluff

By Rona Marech
Photograph by Gretchen Baker/NPS

At well-known caves around the country, volunteers armed with tweezers and brushes keep lint—yes, lint—at bay.

What could be more innocuous than a bit of lint? Some fluff in the belly button, a soft sheet in the clothes dryer screen, feather-light specks of fiber in a pocket. A tiny breeze and those bits—poof—are gone.

But that fluff isn’t always quite as innocent as it seems.

It turns out that deep, dark, breeze-less caves can act like massive belly buttons, and in famous, frequently visited caves, those pieces of fiber, fabric, hair, skin cells, dust, and dirt can accumulate. The bits turn to clumps, affecting the cave’s formations and harming its denizens.

Enter “lint camp,” sleepaway camp for speleologists, spelunkers, cavers, and good-natured hangers-on. Every year, dozens of them gather at sites including Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, and Lehman Caves at Nevada’s Great Basin National Park. They wipe, clean, clear, spray, scrub, dust, and pick lint, making dingy walls shine and returning the caves to their natural states.

THE NUMBERS

According to Jablonsky’s records, 364 volunteers have removed a total of 443.5 pounds of lint at the camps she’s organized at Carlsbad Caverns nearly every year since 1988.

“When the kids found out just before we left that we were going to clean a cave with Q-tips, they were not thrilled,” says Steve Frye, who attended the Lehman Caves lint camp in March with his teenage sons. “But we got there, and they absolutely loved it.”

Wielding wet rags, tweezers, brushes, and spray bottles (but not actual Q-tips), Frye’s family joined a group of 37 volunteers in the three-mile cave. They were stunned to see that in places, dusty gray walls turned white or golden by the time they were done. “When you realize there’s beautiful, natural sculpture underneath, you have the tendency to work hard,” Frye says.

Considering the large number of passionate cavers out there (the National Speleological Society has 10,000 members), it took a long time to figure out that lint was a threat to caves. Cave enthusiast Pat Jablonsky was doing restoration work at Carlsbad Caverns in 1987 when a cave specialist took her aside, reached over a retaining wall, and picked up a “glob of stuff.” Those globs, he told her, could become a serious ecological problem. Jablonsky organized the very first lint camp at Carlsbad Caverns the following year.

Experts subsequently learned that lint that stays on cave walls too long eventually is incorporated into the formations. Moreover, lint is a food source for tiny cave-dwellers, and those extra snacks can upset the cave’s natural food web. And some microbes eat the organic matter and produce an acid that dissolves rock formations.

Plus, lint can look downright awful, says Ben Roberts, the chief of natural resource management at Great Basin. “It’s as if you didn’t dust your house for 19 years and there were dust bunnies everywhere,” he says. “If we’re trying to explain to visitors how important and fragile the resource is and there are giant piles of lint hanging off formations, it detracts from the conversation.”

This year at Lehman Caves, the group cleared out nearly two tons of trash, broken concrete, rocks, sand, and dirt, most of which date back to the first half of the 20th century, when workers blasted out sections of the cave and built the trail. Then there was the lint: 50 pounds in all by the end of the weekend.

Of course, there’s another way to fight lint—restricting the amount that enters in the first place. Several caves already limit tour size or have built retaining walls. The next step may involve sending visitors past giant blowers and misting stations. A state cave in Arizona is already trying this, and the Park Service is slowly moving toward adopting similar strategies at Lehman Caves, which sees approximately 30,000 visitors annually.

In the meantime, there’s always lint camp.

It was a fantastic vacation, Frye says, and his sons already said they want to return. “We were locked in a cave, and the kids were right with us. It was a close time of family bonding for all of us,” Frye says. “Plus, you get to go in parts of the cave that are usually off-limits. As a caver, that’s why we were really, really there. That was the icing on the cake.”

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