PHOENIX — The state that is home to the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest will soon acquire another natural wonder--a spectacular 2 1/2-mile cavern kept secret for years for fear that it would be vandalized.
The Legislature and Gov. Rose Mofford in April rushed to enact legislation allowing the state to acquire the cavern discovered 14 years ago near Benson in southeast Arizona.
Fear of Vandalism
Mofford perched a spelunker's helmet atop her beehive hairdo as she signed the bill passed by lawmakers only an hour earlier to create a state park.
The cave's existence had been a closely held secret since it was discovered in 1974, because its owners feared that vandals would destroy its beauty.
"It is a major natural resource find," said state Park Board Director Kenneth Travous, who has twice squeezed through the tiny opening to view the cavern.
"It's fabulous," Travous said. "Walt Disney couldn't have done any better for the state of Arizona. Your imagination goes crazy when you get down there."
The two-room cavern, in the Whetstone Mountains south of Benson, is about 7,000 feet long and from 50 to 100 feet high inside. Thousands of still-growing stalagmites and stalactites ranging from a few inches to 60 feet are found throughout. It is also home to a colony of 700 bats.
In about three years, Travous says, about 100,000 to 150,000 people a year will get to travel by elevator to see the cave. Officials plan to use state park revenues to acquire the site for $1.6 million within a year from the Arizona Nature Conservancy, which soon will buy the site from the family of the late James Kartchner, a Cochise County rancher and educator.
Never Knew It Was There
"I imagine I walked over this thing I don't know how many times hunting deer" but never realized the cavern was underneath, said Rep. Gus Arzberger, whose district includes the cave.
The state sent park rangers to guard the site on an emergency basis as word of the cavern's existence began to leak out. The bill was quickly enacted to allow the state to continue to oversee the land.
The cavern's co-discoverer, Randy Tufts, 39, said that finding it along with Gary Tenen, 37, was "a once in a lifetime discovery for the caver."
"People go out and hunt and hunt and hunt for caves; 99 times out of 100 you never find anything," Tufts said.
Near Major Highway
Tufts said he and Tenen wanted the cavern turned into a park because that would be the best way to protect it from vandals. Because it is near a major highway, Tufts said it was inevitable that other people would find it.
Tufts said he had been into the cavern hundreds of times.
"It's very colorful. . . . The variety of formations is very wide," and it still is an actively changing cave, Tufts said.
Four of Kartchner's 12 children attended the legislative session and bill-signing. Dean Kartchner, a physician, said family members were aware of the cave but not its splendor.
"We climbed in it, there were rattlesnakes, and we climbed back out (with) no idea of the magnificence of the structure," Kartchner said.