Keeping landmarks safe the No. 1 priority for all

By Ad Crable

The Associated Press

LANCASTER — Despite a tricky and manpower-intensive rescue of a teenager, Wind Cave in southern Lancaster County will not be closed to public use.

Warning signs, however, will be erected at access points to the popular cave, said Phil Wenger, president and CEO of the Lancaster County Conservancy, which will take over ownership of the land containing the cave this year.

“We have no intention of closing that cave at this point,” Wenger said.

The Feb. 17 rescue spurred new safety concerns from some local residents. Others expressed indignation at the thought of closing a touchstone natural wonder for generations of local explorers.

The discussion reflects the difficult dance faced by private and public managers of Lancaster County’s natural areas as they work to keep natural landmarks open, but safe.

Wind Cave is one of several spots that have posed significant challenges:

n There have been repeated falls from the Chickies Rock precipice along the Susquehanna River despite protective fences and warning signs.

n Accidents and a lawsuit at a popular swimming hole in the gorgeous Pequea Gorge caused the spot to be sealed off from the public.

n And a sublime view of the Susquehanna River on the White Cliffs of Conoy made township officials determined to open it for public enjoyment even though a few visitors act like idiots.

How do you keep Lancaster County’s natural landmarks accessible — and uncluttered by signs and fences– yet safe for the public?

In today’s litigious society, the threat of liability is always in the background, despite a state law aimed at protecting those who provide public recreation.

Sometimes, when accidents happen repeatedly, landowners feel they have no choice but to limit or bar access. Often, it comes down to how far should one go to protect people from themselves.

After the recent rescue of a teen from Wind Cave in Martic Township — the fifth since 1993 — some have questioned why access to the cave is not restricted or closed.

Many others have argued vehemently against such a move.

In an informal online LNP poll asking whether the cave should be closed, 73 percent of 541 responders said the cave should remain open to the public.

The cave, accessible from the Conestoga Trail System, is very popular with youth groups and beginner spelunking groups from several states.

One of those groups is Youth Opportunities Underground. Founder Allen Maddox of Honey Brook observed, “I prefer to educate people about caves, rather than closing them or making them off-limits, he said.

Reaction from readers of LNP’s online stories about the cave rescue has been one-sided, with a strong sentiment that the cave should not be closed. Many were indignant at the very suggestion.

“Life is dangerous. Five rescues in all these years is not a bad stat by any stretch,” Stephen Davis, a missionary at Child Evangelism Fellowship, commented on the rescue story. “I’m sure very good lessons were learned all around.

“One of the most dangerous things we can ever attempt to do is to try and make everything safe. Keep it open!”

Sean Broome, another reader, responded with sarcasm: “More people get hurt out in the river during the summer. Guess we’ll have to close that off too. The bubble wrap/nanny state types make my blood pressure boil.”

The cave is currently on land owned by the Brookfield Renewable utility. But it will be donated this year to the Lancaster County Conservancy, which is in the early stages of developing a management plan with input from caving groups and other stakeholders.