Nature conservation

Parks, reserves and protected areas

Caves access

Through the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) the Office of Environment an Heritage (OEH)  manage over forty individual karst environments containing caves of outstanding natural, cultural, scientific and recreational value. These values may be adversely impacted on by human activity and natural events and therefore require careful management.

By managing access to caves NPWS can reduce or prevent the potentially adverse impacts of human activity, and give greater protection to sensitive cave features and processes. It can also ensure that access to caves, which require more than a basic level of knowledge and skills to safely traverse, is limited to suitably qualified and experienced people.

The use of permit systems, or similar approval processes to manage access to caves, is an accepted approach to mitigating the impacts of human activity. Under this approach, visitors are required to formally apply for cave access at which time the Park Authority can set the appropriate conditions.

The remote location of many caves means that security measures, such as the installation of gates, fences and signs may also be required to manage cave access and prevent vandalism. The use of these measures is particularly important where the potential for mishap, damage or harm is high.

While the majority of caves are accessible to the public, a limited number have been set aside as scientific reference caves. These caves will typically contain outstanding or representative values (biological, geological, geomorphological and cultural) and are managed to remain in or evolve in an unmodified state free from human interference. Access to reference caves is primarily restricted to research activities that may not reasonably be conducted elsewhere.

In determining the extent and nature of cave access which may be granted, NPWS relies heavily on the information provided by speleologists and researchers. These groups provide valuable information on karst processes and the contents of caves such as fauna, flora and fossils; the continued access of appropriate caves by these groups is important to furthering NPWS’s knowledge and understanding of its karst environments.

The objectives of this policy are:  

  • to ensure that access to caves is consistent with the conservation of cave values
  • to manage the extent and nature of cave access
  • to outline the requirements and principles for implementing cave security and appropriate measures
  • to outline the principles for approving karst-related research and the procedures for obtaining a scientific licence
  • to outline the factors to be considered by the Park Authority when undertaking hazard assessments of caves, where it has been determined that a hazard assessment is appropriate, and to clarify NPWS’s role in responding to cave emergencies
  • to outline the potential impacts of human activity on cave values and the appropriate mitigating measures
  • to confirm NPWS’s position with respect to competitive caving activities and cave diving.

The Policy

1.   NPWS may allow access to caves for appropriate recreational, cultural and scientific activities subject to conditions and the granting of consent.

2.  Under Part 2 of the National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009, any person who wants to enter or remain in a karst cave needs the consent of the Park Authority. Consent may be given:

(a)  by written statement (such as a registration system or cave access plan)
(b)  by a notice erected in a park
(c)   by a specific written authority (such as a permit or licence issued to a particular  individual or group)
(d)  by the relevant plan of management.

3. The method of granting consent will be determined by the Park Authority, having regard to the provisions of this policy and, where specified, the relevant plan of management.

4.   In determining whether access to caves will be permitted the Park Authority will consider the impacts that any proposed access may have on:

  • cave ecology including systems and processes
  • cave biota including threatened flora and fauna species
  • local hydrology and water quality
  • geodiversity values including soils, rocks, sediments, speleothems and landforms and processes
  • cave climate
  • places or items of cultural heritage significance
  • other known cave values (refer Appendix 1)
  • In the case of a recently discovered cave or passage, or where a cave is thought to contain additional values to those previously identified, potential cave values.

Consideration will also be given to:

  • the management principles for the park
  • relevant plans of management, conservation management plans or Statements of Interim Management Intent (SIMI)
  • the history of access to a particular cave
  • the resilience of the cave and its values to human activity
  • the outcomes of any relevant research
  • the history of vandalism and damage to the cave
  • public safety and potential conflict with other visitors
  • the regional, national and international significance of a cave
  • the potential implications on other caves of granting/denying access.

5.  The part, total or periodic exclusion of activities from caves may be imposed as a temporary, seasonal or permanent measure by the Park Authority where this can be reasonably justified. Exclusion may be required due to:

  • indications of adverse environmental impacts
  • the presence of threatened or sensitive flora and fauna
  • the need to protect cultural heritage values
  • park operations or special initiatives
  • cave conditions and hazards which present a risk to visitors
  • incidents or emergencies
  • the designation of a cave (i.e. as  a reference cave).

The part, total or periodic exclusion of activities from caves whether temporary, seasonal, or permanent, will require consultation with stakeholders who may be significantly affected (e.g. local speleologists, researchers). In the event of incidents or emergencies which require the immediate closure of a cave, consultation will take place as soon as possible following the closure. 

In some cases it may be appropriate to close a cave as a precautionary measure pending an assessment of cave values or potential risk. Where possible and appropriate, assessments of cave values should be completed within 12 months of the initial date of the cave being closed after which time the general level and type of visitation should be confirmed. Despite the general closure, the Park Authority may permit trips into the cave for the purpose of obtaining information to assist in the assessment of cave values or risk. 

6.  When granting consent to individuals or groups to access caves, the consent will contain the condition that the individuals or groups undertake activities in accordance with relevant codes, standards and instruments and subsequent revisions. For general caving activities these currently include (but are not limited to):

  • Australian Speleological Federation Code of Ethics adopted 1992, revised 2013, updated 2014
  • Australian Speleological Federation Minimal Impacts Caving Code 2010
  • Australian Speleological Federation Cave Safety Guidelines 2011.

For cave diving these currently include (but are not limited to):

  • Australian Speleological Federation Cave Divining Code of Practice 2004.

Cave Management Plans

7.  In accordance with the relevant plan of management, or as determined by the Park Authority, a cave management plan may be prepared for an individual or group of caves, which:

  • Identifies the caves suitable for access
  • Defines the type, level and frequency of access
  • Outlines the standard conditions for cave access (refer Appendix 2)
  • Identifies the specific conservation and management requirements of the cave/s.

8.  Caves suitable for access, and the type and level of access, may also be identified in the relevant plan of management.

Cave Permits

9.  The Park Authority will assess all applications for cave permits using the information supplied by applicants which will include, as a minimum, the mandatory information contained in Appendix 3. Applicants may also be required to supply additional (i.e. non-mandatory) information that is consistent with the scale and type of activity proposed.

10. Conditions may be applied to permits including seasonal restrictions, limits on access and frequency of access.

11.  Any permit which may be issued by the Park Authority must include, as a minimum, the Standard Cave Permit Conditions set out in Appendix 2. The Park Authority may also impose other conditions which are not inconsistent with the Standard Cave Permit Conditions and that assist with the protection of cave values and public safety.

12. In granting permits the following principles will apply:

  • Where the Park Authority determines that cave should be assessed for values or risk (refer Clause 5) it should adopt a precautionary approach to the granting permits.
  • Impacts resulting from access can vary widely throughout caves and relate to site specific values and processes. Consideration shall be given to this when granting permits and their relevance to particular locations. 
  • The Park Authority requires ongoing information in order to reduce knowledge gaps and more effectively manage caves. When granting permits, consideration shall be given to the extent, type and overall value of the information which could be derived from the proposed activities; and the capacity and skills of the group seeking access to provide such information. However this consideration should not be used as the sole basis for either granting or denying access to a cave.
  • Cave rescue training is recognised as an important activity however it may adversely impact on cave values. Training activities that involve large groups, the use of bulky equipment and/or high levels of movement, should be limited in number and restricted to appropriate caves.
  • Inappropriate access to caves may result in cave values being harmed or destroyed. When granting permits, consideration shall be given to the past conduct of individuals/groups including their record of compliance with permit conditions and relevant legislation, together with any reasons that may be given for any non-compliance and the remedial actions taken.  
  •   Activities undertaken by speleologists, researchers and other members of the community have assisted NPWS in meeting its management and conservation objectives. On-going communication with these groups is important to gather knowledge and provide NPWS with increased opportunity to meet its objectives.
  • Activities focused on the enjoyment and conservation of nature and cultural heritage are generally more compatible with the protection of cave values than other types of activities (e.g. military training activities). In assessing permit applications, consideration should be given to the type of activity and whether it would be more suitably undertaken at an alternative location.

13. The Park Authority may refuse access to individuals/groups on the basis that they have previously breached permit conditions. However, if proposing to refuse a permit on this basis, the Park Authority will give the individual/group concerned the opportunity to:

  • explain the reasons for any such breach
  • where feasible and appropriate, remedy the effect of any non-compliance.

14. The Park Authority may impose a charge or fee for the administration of permits.

15. In determining the level of charge or fee which may be imposed, the Park Authority will consider the time and resources which are required to administer the relevant permit/s. 

16. The Park Authority will waive any charges or fees in the following circumstances:

(a)   In respect of a particular activity, if it can be reasonably demonstrated, that the proposed activity will benefit the Park Authority’s understanding or management of caves/karst or the community generally. Activities where charges or fees will normally be waived include:

  • Licensed research
  • Data collection including cave surveys
  • Cave restoration (e.g. graffiti removal, pathway refurbishment)
  • Cave rescue training by appropriately authorised groups
  • Impact and risk mitigation works
  • Monitoring and reporting on cave condition including the submission of  electronic standard cave trip reports (Appendix 4) containing any details requested by the Park Authority).

(b)   In respect of a particular applicant, if it can be reasonably demonstrated that they have consistently provided a high level of information and/or services such of the kind described in sub-clause a, of benefit to NPWS’s understanding or management of caves/karst or the community generally.

17. The waiving of charges or fees is contingent on the activity and its deliverables being undertaken and/or submitted within a timeframe agreed to by the Park Authority following negotiation with the relevant individual, group or organisation. Should applicants be unable to undertake and/or submit deliverables within the previously negotiated timeframe, the reason for such delay must be brought to the immediate attention of the Park Authority and a revised timeframe negotiated.   

Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve

18. Currently the management of caves, whose surface and/or below ground area is located in both the Visitor Use and Services Zone and Conservation Management Zone of the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve, is the joint responsibility of NPWS and the Jenolan Caves Reserve Trust. Under this special arrangement, the granting of permits will be the responsibility of the Manager Karst and Geodiversity Unit (or delegate) with the agreement of the Area Manager Kanangra (or delegate).  

Cave Research

19. Consent is required for any research under Part 2 of the National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009.

20. Research which is likely to result in damage, harm or alteration, to protected fauna, native plants, threatened species or critical habitat (as specified in Section 132 (C) of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974), requires a scientific licence.

21. The Park Authority must seek the comment of the Manager, Karst and Geodiversity Unit for any karst-related research which (a) requires a scientific licence, or (b) is of a significant, or potentially sensitive, nature. 

22. Any consent or licence to conduct research will be subject to the provisions of this policy. The Park Authority may waive certain provisions, such as those set out in  Clause 6, subject to the type, scale and nature of research to be undertaken and its potential benefits.

23. As a condition of any consent granted, research findings will be made available to Office of Environment and Heritage.

24. In assessing research proposals consideration should be given to the following principles:

  • Cave environments may be hazardous and are impact sensitive. Consent to conduct research should not be granted where likely risks or impacts are unacceptable.
  • Proposed research should be feasible, relevant and credible achieving demonstrated outcomes within agreed timeframes. Efforts should be made to promote research of potential benefit to the management of caves or the broader community.

NPWS has limited resources (financial or otherwise) to support research, and sets priorities in accordance with strategic goals. In assessing proposals which require the resources of the NPWS, consideration should be given to Office of Environment and Heritage research priorities.  

Cave Security

25. The Park Authority may use security measures such as signs, fences and gates to prevent or reduce adverse impacts on cave values. Administrative security measures, such as confidentiality of information and management protocols, may also be used where appropriate.

26. The use of security measures will be in accordance with NPWS Guidelines for Assessing, Implementing and Monitoring Cave Security Measures.

27. The impacts of proposed security measures will be assessed in accordance with NPWS impact assessment guidelines.

28. In assessing the requirement for security measures and the type of measure to be implemented, the following principles will apply:

  • Security measures shall be considered for caves which are known to contain significant values, or where evidence or the experience of the Park Authority or other relevant party indicates that a cave is likely to contain significant values and the existence and extent of those values has not been properly assessed. Security measures shall also be considered for caves where visitors are likely to be exposed to serious risks that they cannot reasonably anticipate and avoid.  
  • The obstruction of cave passages by built structures or fill can hinder the movement of cave fauna (particularly bats) and their use of caves, and alter critical microclimates. The installation of gates, fences or barriers should be seen as a last resort and generally avoided in or near cave entrances or passages used by bats and other fauna on a regular, seasonal or historical basis.
  • Irreplaceable cave values have been damaged, removed or altered through lack of understanding or malicious intent. Information (including maps) relating to the location and contents of caves should not be made publicly available by the Park Authority, with the exception of caves designated for general public access where a permit is not required.    
  • Public information including signs and printed material shall be presented in a way that does not attract the general public to a cave for which an access permit is required.

29. No gates, barriers or similar constructions will be installed within or near caves without first consulting with the Manager, Karst and Geodiversity Unit. The installation of cave gates will be in accordance with NPWS Cave Gating Guidelines.

Cave Diving

30. The Park Authority may allow cave diving in appropriate caves subject to conditions and the granting of consent.

31. Cave diving and associated activities require approval by written permit. Prior to granting permits the comment of the Manager Karst and Geodiversity Unit will be obtained.

32. All divers must hold an appropriate, recognised cave diving qualification from an accredited training agency, and be suitably competent and experienced to safely undertake the proposed activity (refer clause 6). 

33. A permit will not be granted where the proposed activity presents an unacceptable level of risk to human safety or the environment. Circumstances may include technically difficult dives or those proposed for remote or environmentally sensitive areas. 

34. Approval must be obtained from the Park Authority to use non-standard equipment (including prototypes) or propulsion devices. The use of closed circuit re-breathers will not be allowed.

Competitive Activities

35. Cave activities must be undertaken in a careful, calculated and considered manner to protect cave values and visitor safety. Cave activities that involve or encourage unnecessarily rapid movement (such as competitive or timed cave racing) will not be allowed.

Commercial Recreational Activities

36. Where permitted under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, the Park Authority may allow commercial recreational activities in appropriate caves subject to conditions and the granting of a licence. Sections 152 and 153A of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 constrain trade and licensing in certain parks.

37. Commercial activities will be undertaken in accordance with NPWS’s Commercial Recreation and Tour Operator Policy.

Visitor Safety and Risk Management

38. The Park Authority will manage risks in accordance with the NPWS Risk Management Policy and Procedures, NPWS Occupational Health and Safety Policy and PWG Visitor Safety Policy and Procedures.

39. The Park Authority will respond to incidents in accordance with the NPWS State Incident Plan

40. The identification of cave hazards and appropriate control measures will be in accordance with NPWS Guidelines for Identifying Cave Hazards and Associated Risk Control Measures and NPWS Risk Management Policy and Procedures

41. Speleological groups must ensure that members have the necessary skills, experience, level of fitness and general health to safely undertake the activities they propose and to manage the hazards that can be reasonably anticipated.

42. Speleological groups must ensure that they have the relevant procedures and protocols in place, together with the required resources, to identify and react appropriately to any emergencies that may arise.

About the Policy

Scope and Application

This policy applies to the following areas that are within land reserved or acquired under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974:

  • Limestone, marble and dolostone caves and associated underground water bodies, depressions, sinkholes and springs; and
  • Sea cliff and other naturally formed non-carbonate rock caves where access requires on-going management to protect natural and cultural values.              

Definition of Cave

In accordance with the National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009, cave means any naturally occurring void, cavity, recess or system of interconnected passages, that is:

(a)  beneath the surface of the earth or within a cliff or ledge

(b)  large enough to permit a person to enter, whether or not the entrance is    naturally formed or human made

(c) wholly or substantially roofed.

Relevant Legislation or Other Mandating Instruments

  • National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974
  • National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009
  • Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995
  • NSW Heritage Act 1977

Related Policies and Other Documents

  • Commercial Recreation and Tour Operator Policy
  • Risk Management System
  • OHS Risk Management System
  • Risk Management Policy and Procedures
  • PWG Visitor Safety Policy and Procedures
  • State Incident Plan

Further Readings

  • Australasian Cave and Karst Management Association Inc. (ACKMA) http://www.ackma.org
  • Australian Speleological Federation Inc. (ASF) http://www.caves.org.au/
  • Gillieson, D. (1996) Caves: Processes, Development, Management. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford, UK.
  • Watson, J. Hamilton-Smith, E. Gillieson, D. & Kiernan, K. (1997). Guidelines for Cave and Karst Conservation. IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, Gland,   Switzerland.
  • Australasian Bat Society http://ausbats.org.au/
  • Hildreth-Werker, V., Werker, J.C. (eds) 2006. Cave Conservation and Restoration, National Speleological Society, Huntsville, Alabama

Accountabilities

This section of the Cave Access Policy outlines the responsibilities of all persons who are involved in implementing the policy and/or ensuring its implementation.

Position

Key Accountabilities/Responsibilities

 

The Park Authority

Link to delegations section in NPW Regulation 2009

 

Grant access to caves (Clause 2)

 

Approve and administer recreational caving permits including cave diving (Clauses 9-17 and 30)

 

Seek comment from Manager Karst and Geodiversity Unit with respect to cave diving proposals (Clause 31)

 

Seek comment from Manager, Karst and Geodiversity Unit with respect to cave gating proposals (Clause 29)

 

 

Manager Karst and Geodiversity Unit

 

Approve recreational caving permits for Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve (Clause 18)

 

Provide comment to Manager, Wildlife Licensing and Management Unit on karst-related research proposals (Clause 21).

 

Provide comment to Park Authority on cave diving proposals (Clause 30)

 

 

Manager, Wildlife Licensing and Management Unit

 

Approve Section 132 Scientific Licences (Clause 20)

 

Seek comment from Karst and Geodiversity Unit with respect to karst-related research (Clause 21)

 

Definitions

Cave diving: is a type of technical diving in which specialised breathing equipment is used to enable the exploration of natural or artificial caves, and man made tunnels and mines which are at least partially filled with water. Some cave diving includes the use of specialised techniques and equipment such as mixed gases, closed circuit rebreathers, dive propulsion vehicles and other redundant safety equipment.

Cave hazard: is anything relating to a cave or equipment used to undertake caving activities that has the potential to cause injury or illness.

Cultural values: can be either a physical manifestation of cultural attachment with the environment (such as art work or petroglyphs) or a spiritual association.

Geodiversity: means the natural range of geological (bedrock), geomorphological (landform) and soil features, assemblages, systems and processes.

Natural values: are the important physical and aesthetic attributes of a cave and its contents derived from the natural environment. These can vary from cave to cave and may include biological, geological, landscape, scenic and experiential qualities.

Park: means any land acquired or reserved under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.

Park Authority: is in accordance with the National Parks and Wildlife Regulation 2009 with delegates specified in the instrument of delegation under section 21(1) (b) of the NPW Act 1974.

Plan of management: means a plan of management under Part 5 of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 for a park or reserve.

Precautionary approach: means that where there is a risk of serious or irreversible environmental harm, or a serious risk to personal safety, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation of manage potential safety risks.

Statements of Interim Management Intent: are produced to guide specific management activities within a Park where a Plan of Management has yet to be prepared for the Park and the proposed management activities fall outside the provisions of the NPWS Pre-plan policy

Page last updated: 31 January 2017