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It's Back to Nature for Remote Idaho Ice Cavern

Tourism: BLM and the National Park Service have closed access to dangerous cave in Craters of the Moon monument to improve visitor safety. They are also removing other derelict signs of development.


CRATERS OF THE MOON NATIONAL MONUMENT, Idaho — In the hot 1960s summers, several thousand tourists would come to the Crystal Ice Cave in southern Idaho, where ice grew like huge white Popsicles.

A mining engineer made it his life's passion to develop the desert cave and make it accessible to everyone, at $5 a head. His family spent years blasting through basalt with dynamite to create a quarter-mile underground tunnel to the ice cave.

But the business never quite boomed, and the development was abandoned in 1987 after federal safety officials decided the homespun tunnel, shored up with pipes and rebar, was an accident waiting to happen.

Now the area is officially part of the expanded Craters of the Moon National Monument, and some are concerned people may become curious again.

Today it's a far cry from a managed theme park.

"All these rifts and caves are so dynamic. Things are happening and moving in them all the time," said Chris Christiansen, a recreational caver from Blackfoot, Idaho, who was helping extract glass viewing windows from the defunct cave. "This is a very difficult environment, a hostile environment, and it's a good way to get hurt if you don't know what you're doing."

There's not much to see now from the surface except sagebrush, piles of lava rubble and a jagged crack in the earth.

Federal managers have been giving the area back to nature, taking out trailer pads, diesel tanks and cisterns.

The entrance to the ice cave has long been sealed off, since the underground system is unstable and dangerous. Lava chunks the size of washing machines can fall without warning. The rock walls are rotten. The ice in the underground cavern has eroded. The spectacular towers and crystal formations are gone, with only lumpish mounds remaining.

Public safety in these remote areas is just one issue the BLM and the National Park Service must address over the next 2 1/2 years as the agencies develop a management plan for Craters of the Moon.

That will determine whether roads will be improved, which two-tracks will be closed to vehicles, how grazing is managed and whether new visitor services will be added. This summer they're planning to begin asking the public what they want from the new 1,000-square-mile monument.

It's also unclear how the change in administration may affect the area's future.

Gale Norton, President Bush's Interior secretary, has asked state and local officials whether they would support boundary adjustments for the flurry of monuments created by President Clinton during his last months in office. She also asked for their views on how vehicle use, grazing, water rights, drilling, logging and other forms of development should be managed inside the monuments.

Rep. Michael K. Simpson (R-Idaho) has introduced a bill that would reinstate hunting in all parts of the expanded Craters monument. That's usually not allowed in areas managed by the National Park Service, which now has jurisdiction over the lava flows and volcanic features.

Most people don't hunt inside the lava flows, but they may cross over them to get to kipukas--islands of vegetation--while tracking deer, antelope or elk. People don't want to have to unload their guns just because they crossed a management line, said Dave Howell, spokesman for the BLM.

"You would have to test the political winds, but I don't think we're quite done with this," he said. "But here on the ground, we're under a mandate to get a management plan in place within three years. So until someone tells us otherwise, that's what we're going to do."

No one's sure how much of a draw the remote lava flows--located roughly between Arco, Aberdeen and Minidoka--will be.

The roads are rough and rutted, sometimes appearing to drop away beneath the car on the downslope of hills.

There's always a concern that designating something as a natural wonder will draw more people, who simply by visiting damage the resources that designation is trying to protect.

"I think it may be something of an attraction to local people because they know about the lavas or would like to see a kipuka up close," said Bill Boggs, outdoor recreation planner for the BLM. "Right now we're going to feel out what this summer season is going to be like, whether we have more tourists, how many big Winnebagos try to come through. I don't think they'll try that once they see the roads."

The casual tourist may be disappointed. Although the area may be fascinating to geology buffs and cavers for the unique features created as Idaho passed over a volcanic hot spot, it's not much to look at up top.

There's lots of sagebrush, a few spring wildflowers and piles of lava rock the color of a rusting cast iron skillet.

There's also a crack in the earth that runs for 62 miles, called the Great Rift. From the surface it looks like little more than a jagged gash snaking across the flat desert.

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