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News / Sports / Outdoors

Limits proposed on access to Ape Cave

By Al Thomas, Columbian Outdoors Reporter
Published: October 28, 2015, 5:50pm

COUGAR — Faced with heavy use and after-hours parties, drinking and fires at night and in winter, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest is proposing changes at popular Ape Cave, including closure gates in the off-season.

The cave, a 2.5-mile lava tube, is on the south side of Mount St. Helens. It gets an estimated 170,000 visitor per year. It is the longest continuous lava tube in the continental United States.

“There are regular acts of vandalism such as graffiti on the cave walls, litter within the cave, evidence of fire and human waste inside the cave,’’ said Deb Schoenberg, a recreation planner for the U.S. Forest Service. “This negative behavior typically occurs when the cave is unmanned, like at night or during the winter.’’

An open house to discuss proposed changes at Ape Cave is scheduled from 10 a.m. until noon Saturday at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest headquarters, 10600 N.E. 51st Circle.

Among the Forest Service’s proposals:

Installing vandal-resistant cave gates to restrict access in the off-season and after hours at the main entrance, upper entrance and upper skylight of Ape Cave.

Adding a public gathering area along the current access trail to the main entrance for talks about cave etiquette and resources.

Adding an enclosure fence surrounding the upper entrance to Ape Cave and from Ape Headquarters around the main entrance.

Filling in with boulders a human-dug entrance in to the upper cave. The hole was excavated over the years by cavers.

 Adding a ladder or hand holds in the lava fall area in the upper cave.

Potentially adding a decontamination station along the trail to the cave entrance if white-nose syndrome occurs. White-nose is a fungal growth around the muzzles and wings of hibernating bats. The station would include a walk-through foot bath for cleaning the bottom of shoes with a mild detergent.

Building two exclosures inside Ape Cave for demonstration and educational opportunities. A barricade fence would keep people out of two small sections of the lower cave.

Installing four to seven interpretive signs for self-guided education tours.

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Limiting access inside the cave to “business hours,’’ such at 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. from mid-April through mid-October.

“There’s a need to limit access when staff can’t be on site,’’ Schoenberg said. “We believe this action will control access to those individuals that disrespect the cave.’’

If access is limited by season and hours, special groups still could have access by permit or reservation when Forest Service staff is not present, she said.

“Similar types of reservations take place in our cabins, lookouts, recreation rentals, etc.,’’ she added.

The Forest Service hopes to learn more about concerns and options from the public, she said.

An environmental assessment will be prepared this fall. A 30-day comment period will follow the release. A decision could be implemented by spring of 2016.

Columbian Outdoors Reporter