Caves access policy

We manage access to caves to reduce risk to visitors and to minimise harm to cave features and processes. To enter many caves you must formally apply for access.

Stalagmite Lots Wife Wombeyan Caves part of The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area Colong Sector limestone caves set in the Wombeyan Karst Conservation Reserve

The NSW 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 2019 (NPW Regulation), 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.
  1. 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 cave or a group of caves) that:
    • identifies the caves suitable for access
    • defines the type, level and frequency of access
    • outlines the standard conditions for cave access (internal document available to staff – Cave Access Policy Appendix 2: Standard Cave Permit Conditions)
    • identifies the specific conservation and management requirements of the caves.
  2. Caves suitable for access, and the type and level of access, may also be identified in the relevant plan of management.
  1. The park authority will assess all applications for cave permits using the information supplied by applicants: this must include, at a minimum, the mandatory information (internal document available to staff – Cave Access Policy Appendix 3: Mandatory Information to be included in Cave Permit Applications).

    Applicants may also be required to supply additional (that is, non-mandatory) information, depending on the scale and type of activity proposed.

  2. Conditions that may be applied to permits include seasonal restrictions, limits on access and frequency of access.
  3. Any permit that may be issued by the park authority must include, at a minimum, the standard conditions for cave permits (internal document available to staff – Cave Access Policy Appendix 2: Standard Cave Permit Conditions).

    The park authority may also impose other conditions that assist with the protection of cave values and public safety and which are not inconsistent with the Standard Cave Permit Conditions.

Principles for granting permits

  1. Where the park authority determines that a cave should be assessed for values or risk (see paragraph 5), it should adopt a precautionary approach (see Definitions section) to the granting permits.

    Impacts resulting from access can vary widely throughout caves and relate to site-specific values and processes. The park authority will consider this when granting permits and their relevance to particular locations.

    The park authority requires ongoing information 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 that 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, but it may adversely affect 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, the park authority will consider the past conduct of the individuals or groups involved, 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 (someone who studies caves), researchers and other members of the community have helped NPWS meet its management and conservation objectives. Ongoing communication with these groups is important to gather knowledge that helps NPWS 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 (for example, military training activities). In assessing permit applications, the park authority should consider the type of activity and whether it would be more suitably undertaken at an alternative location.

  2. The park authority may refuse access to individuals or 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 or group concerned the opportunity to:
    • explain the reasons for any such breach
    • where feasible and appropriate, remedy the effect of any non-compliance.
  3. The park authority may impose a charge or fee for the administration of permits.
  4. 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 permits.
  5. The park authority will waive any charges or fees in the following circumstances:
    1. 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 (for example, removing graffiti or refurbishing pathways)
      • cave-rescue training by appropriately authorised groups
      • works undertaken to reduce the impact of people on the cave or the risk to people entering the cave
      • monitoring and reporting on cave conditions, including the submission of electronic standard cave trip reports (internal document available to staff – Cave Access Policy Appendix 4: Standard Cave Trip Report).
    2. in respect of a particular applicant, if it can be reasonably demonstrated that the applicant has consistently provided a high level of information and/or services such of the kind described in paragraph 16a, of benefit to NPWS's understanding or management of caves/karst or to the community generally.
  6. 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

  1. Some caves have their surface and/or below-ground area located in both the Visitor Use and Services Zone and the Conservation Management Zone of the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve. These caves are at present managed jointly by NPWS and the Jenolan Caves Reserve Trust. Under this special arrangement, the granting of permits is the responsibility of the Manager, Landforms and Rehabilitation (or delegate), with the agreement of the Area Manager Kanangra (or delegate).
  1. Part 2 of the NPW Regulation requires consent for any kind of research in a park.
  2. Research that is likely to result in damage, harm or alteration to protected animals, native plants, threatened species or areas of outstanding biodiversity value also requires approval under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016.
  3. The park authority must seek the comment of the NPWS Landforms and Rehabilitation Team for any karst-related research that requires approval, or is of a significant or potentially sensitive nature.
  4. 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 paragraph 6, subject to the type, scale and nature of research to be undertaken and its potential benefits.
  5. As a condition of any consent granted, research findings will be made available to the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.

Principles for assessing research proposals

  1. Consent to conduct research should not be granted where there would be high risks to the people involved or the effects on the cave would be unacceptable.

    Proposed research should be feasible, relevant and credible, and achieve 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 that require the resources of the NPWS, the park authority should consider the research priorities of the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.

  1. 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.
  2. The use of security measures will be in accordance with the NPWS Guidelines for Assessing, Implementing and Monitoring Cave Security Measures.
  3. The impacts of proposed security measures will be assessed in accordance with NPWS impact assessment guidelines.

Principles for implementing security measures

  1. 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-dwelling animals (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.

  2. No gates, barriers or similar constructions will be installed within or near caves without first consulting with the Landforms and Rehabilitation Team. The installation of cave gates will be in accordance with NPWS Cave Gating Guidelines (internal document available to staff).
  1. The park authority may allow cave diving in appropriate caves, subject to conditions.
  2. Cave diving and associated activities require a written permit from the park authority, following consultation with the Landforms and Rehabilitations Team.
  3. All divers must hold an appropriate, recognised cave diving qualification, and be suitably competent and experienced to safely undertake the proposed activity.
  4. A permit will not be granted where the proposed activity presents an unacceptable level of risk to people or the environment. This may be the case if the dive is technically difficult or in a remote or environmentally sensitive area.
  5. Approval must be obtained from the park authority to use non-standard equipment (including prototypes) or propulsion devices. Closed-circuit re-breathers are not allowed.
  1. Cave activities must be undertaken with care to protect cave values and visitor safety. Cave activities that involve or encourage unnecessarily rapid movement (such as competitive or timed cave racing) are not allowed.
  1. The park authority may allow commercial recreational activities in some caves, subject to conditions and the granting of a licence. Sections 152 and 153A of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NPW Act) constrain trade and licensing in certain parks.
  2. Commercial activities will be undertaken in accordance with NPWS's Commercial Recreation and Tour Operator Policy (internal document available to staff).
  1. The park authority will manage risks in accordance with the NPWS Risk Management Policy and Procedures, NPWS Occupational Health and Safety Policy and the NPWS Visitor Safety Policy and Procedures.
  2. The park authority will respond to incidents in accordance with the NPWS State Incident Plan.
  3. Cave hazards and appropriate control measures will be identified in accordance with NPWS Guidelines for Identifying Cave Hazards and Associated Risk Control Measures and NPWS Risk Management Policy and Procedures.
  4. 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 foreseen.
  5. 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.

Policy adopted September 2010
Policy last updated January 2020

Scope and application

This policy applies to all lands acquired or reserved under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NPW Act) except for lands reserved under Part 4A of the Act (unless the Board of Management for those lands has adopted the policy). However, NPWS staff can use the policy as guidance in their dealings with Boards of Management.

This policy applies to the following areas that are within land reserved or acquired under the NPW Act:

  • limestone, marble and dolostone caves and associated underground water bodies, depressions, sinkholes and springs
  • sea-cliff and other naturally formed non-carbonate rock caves where access requires ongoing management to protect natural and cultural values.


The objectives of this policy are to:

  • ensure that access to caves is consistent with the conservation of cave values
  • manage the extent and nature of cave access
  • outline the requirements and principles for implementing cave security and appropriate measures
  • outline the principles for approving karst-related research and the procedures for obtaining a scientific licence
  • 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
  • outline the potential impacts of human activity on cave values and the appropriate mitigating measures
  • confirm NPWS's position with respect to competitive caving activities and cave diving.


Cave means any naturally occurring void, cavity, recess or system of interconnected passages that are:

  • beneath the surface of the earth or within a cliff or ledge
  • large enough to permit a person to enter, whether or not the entrance is naturally formed or human-made
  • wholly or substantially roofed.

Cave diving is a type of technical diving in which specialised breathing equipment is used to enable the exploration of caves and tunnels that are at least partly filled with water. Some cave diving includes the use of specialised techniques and equipment such as mixed gases, closed-circuit re-breathers, dive-propulsion vehicles and other safety equipment.

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

Cave 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.

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

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

Karst describes an area or environment formed from the erosion of soluble rocks such as limestone to create underground caves and streams, fissures and sinkholes.

Park means any land acquired or reserved under the NPW Act.

Park authority means a delegate specified by section 21(1)(b) of the NPW Act and in accordance with the NPW Regulation.

Plan of management means a plan of management under Part 5 of the NPW Act 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 or manage potential safety risks.

Statements of interim management intent are produced to guide specific management activities within a park if a plan of management has yet to be prepared for the park and the proposed management activities fall outside the provisions of the Managing parks prior to a plan of management policy.


This section outlines NPWS staff with significant responsibilities for ensuring the implementation of the policy.

Paragraph Position
2. Grant access to caves
9–17 and 30. Approve and administer recreational caving permits including cave diving
29. Seek comment from Landforms and Rehabilitation Team with respect to cave gating proposals
31. Seek comment from Landforms and Rehabilitation Team with respect to cave diving proposals
Park authority
18. Approve recreational caving permits for Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve
21. Provide comment on karst-related research proposals
31. Provide comment to park authority on cave diving proposals
Landforms and Rehabilitation Team
19. Grant park consent for research proposals
21. Seek comment from Landforms and Rehabilitation Team with respect to karst-related research
Park authority