The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) manages more than 40 areas containing karst caves of outstanding natural, cultural, scientific and recreational value.
NPWS manages access to these caves, to:
- reduce the risk of people damaging cave features
- ensure that only people who have appropriate skills and experience to move safely in caves are allowed to do so.
Most caves are open to the public but some have been set aside as scientific reference caves. These caves have outstanding or representative values (biological, geological, geomorphological and cultural) and are managed to remain free from human interference. Access to reference caves is restricted to research activities that cannot reasonably be conducted elsewhere.
In determining what kinds of cave access it should grant, NPWS relies on the information provided by speleologists and researchers about cave-formation processes and cave contents (such as fauna, formations and fossils).
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:
- by written statement (such as a registration system or cave-access plan)
- by a notice erected in a park
- by a specific written authority (such as a permit or licence issued to a particular individual or group)
- 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 (plants and animals living in the cave), including threatened plant and animal species
- local hydrology (water resources) and water quality
- geodiversity values, including soils, rocks, sediments, speleothems (e.g. stalactites or stalagmites) and landforms and processes
- cave climate
- places or items of cultural heritage significance
- other known cave values (internal document available to staff – Cave Access Policy Appendix 1: List of Cave Values)
- 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.
The park authority will also consider:
- 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 or 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 because of:
- indications of adverse environmental impacts
- the presence of threatened or sensitive plants and animals
- 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 (that is, 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 (for example, local speleologists and 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 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 Diving Code of Practice 2004.