SPRING VALLEY, WI - "I'm not opposed to the new rules, I'm not in favor of them, but we are accepting them," said Jean Cunningham who along with her husband Blaze owns and operates Crystal Cave near Spring Valley.
After what Jean describes as a "long and arduous process that I never want to repeat," the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) revised its ruling concerning show caves in Wisconsin. Fearing that tourists would spread White Nose Syndrome, (a fatal condition for bats) the DNR in September of this year proposed that Wisconsin show caves be open to tourists or be a home for bats; they could not be both.
Responding to an outcry from cave owners, residents and recreational cavers across the state, the DNR agreed to postpone imposing their new regulations until December 8 when they would make a final decision at a meeting held in Madison.
On that date, Jean and Blaze Cunningham along with local businessman Tony Huppert traveled to the state capital. Also in attendance at this crucial meeting were members of "The Coalition to Save the Bats," Joe Klimczack of Cave of the Mounds, John Lovaas representing the Minnesota Speleological Survey and William O'Connor, the lawyer representing the Coalition.
"I spoke, along with John, Joe and Tony," said Jean, "but by the time we actually got to speak to the DNR, a compromise had been reached.
In this compromise, show cave owners will receive a written exemption to certain parts of the DNR ruling. These exemptions include the following: they will not have to exclude bats, and tours can continue; the DNR will purchase six sets of caving gear for cavers who do exploration work at Crystal Cave; visitors will need to be surveyed regarding previous visits to other caves; tourists who are wearing clothing that has been worn in the past five years in other caves will have to undergo a preventative process to make sure they are not carrying spores of the fungus into the cave.
Also included in the compromise is an agreement by cave owners to provide visitors with educational materials about White Nose Syndrome. "We've been doing that for the past two years at Crystal Cave," said Jean adding, "Cave owners will be required to assemble more educational material over the winter, and the DNR will be providing funds to help us put together this material."
She continued, "The DNR also has to let us know 14 days prior to any changes they will be making, and then we're allowed, along with the public, to comment on these changes."
The new rules that were adopted on December 8 were substantially changed from the ones that were proposed back in September. "There was a significant amount of back pedaling. They paid attention to what was said; our lawyer played a huge part in this," said Jean.
Although she does not know how many letters, phone calls, or emails that the DNR or the Natural Resources Board received, she does believe they made a difference. "I want to thank everyone who went out of their way to help us especially Paul Seeling, Kaye Bird, Tony Huppert, Don Nellessen, Jay Arneson, Jae Anderson, Bill Warner and everyone who made calls, sent letters or emails. We appreciate this more than we can ever express," said Jean.