New Preserve Protects Cluster Of Caves Near Rapid City
Getting to Dahm Spring Cave takes a cross-country trek with somebody who knows where they're going – like a few members of the Paha Sapa Grotto caving club.
To reach the cave earlier this week, club members David Springhetti, Nick Anderson and Ken Steinken picked their way across thick patches of grass and brush. They headed down the side of a canyon, where the only footing was loose rock, erodible dirt and slippery pine needles.
About halfway down the 200-foot canyon wall, there's a small opening in the limestone rock.
Springhetti is one of the lucky and intrepid few who’s crawled inside.
“It’s ugly to get into,” he said, “but once you get in there, it’s really spectacular.”
That’s why local cavers want to protect Dahm Spring Cave and six others clustered nearby. They’re all on 46 acres of wild, privately owned canyon land on the western edge of Rapid City.
Local cavers formed the nonprofit Black Hills Cave and Nature Conservancy to make the acquisition and to create the Dahm Springs Preserve. It’s one of 21 cave preserves registered with the National Speleological Society, and the first cave preserve in South Dakota.
Among the preserve’s seven caves (and possibly others yet to be discovered), Dahm Spring Cave is especially beautiful. In just a quarter-mile of surveyed passageways, it has an abundance of features: 6- to 8-foot stalactites and stalagmites, tubes of calcite called “soda straws,” and flowstone formed when running water deposits minerals.
There are also “calcite rafts” – clumps of floating crystal. In this cave, water has receded and the delicate “rafts” are underfoot.
“If you step on that stuff,” Springhetti said, “it’s just like stepping on a pastry that’s 6 inches to a foot thick.”
Other caves in the preserve have additional features, like a lake that connects to the Madison aquifer, which is a major underground water source for many South Dakotans. A scientist has taken water samples there for a study on microbes.
Some parts of the caves are damaged. Through the decades, trespassers have trampled features, spray-painted the walls and left behind litter.
In recent years, the caving club has helped the landowner regulate visits to the cave and keep out trespassers. In turn, the landowner allowed the caving club to explore and map the caves.
The owner, Marilyn Dahm-Borgeson, is now in her 80s and recently decided it was time to formalize her decades-long desire to protect the caves. So she donated the cave land to the conservancy and also sold the conservancy a related parcel.
“I never really thought about making a big profit off of it,” Borgeson said. “I just thought, this is a special thing. This cave is very special, and there are things you can learn from caves, so I thought that would be a better use of it than selling it for a few houses or something.”
The conservancy has raised almost half of the $350,000 it needs to complete the land deal and start a fund to manage the preserve.
Ken Steinken, a caving-club member, said he felt compelled to get involved with the conservancy and the fundraising.
“I like the idea of, if you want something done, do it yourself. Don’t expect the government to do it. Don’t expect some organization to do it that already exists,” Steinken said. “People always seem like they want the wild preserved, but they want somebody else to do it. Well, there was an opportunity staring us in the face.”
He said the outcome makes him want to protect more privately owned caves.
“I hope that would be an example that other people would think about,” Steinken said. “If there’s a special piece of land that they’re aware of in the Black Hills or someplace else, then think about ways you could preserve that for other people to appreciate.”
To make a donation or pledge to the conservancy and preserve, go to https://www.blackhillscaves.org/take-action. In exchange for a donation of $300 or more, the conservancy is offering a hardcover copy of "Cave Minerals of the World."
Currently there are no established trails in or to the preserve. The only access to the preserve is from Forest Service land to the west. Anybody interested in visiting one of the caves must request a permit application at firstname.lastname@example.org and be accompanied by an approved trip leader.