Michael McEachern, 67, looked at home in the dark at the Montana Natural History Center last Wednesday. The glow of a laptop illuminated his soft, gray beard as though a spelunker's lamp were trained on his face. Only McEachern's audience, decked out in flimsy 3D glasses, seemed to greet the dimness as something unusual as they gazed at images of Montana's subterranean wonders.
"We cavers consider ourselves guardians of the underground world," McEachern told them. His voice occasionally drifted into a high register, like an auditory counterpoint to the depths he's explored.
McEachern first started crawling around beneath Montana's alpine landscapes in 1973. He trekked into the Bob Marshall Wilderness that year and mapped a mile of what he calls Blood Cave. Now he's chairman of the Rocky Mountain Grotto chapter of the National Speleological Society. He used to rely on a double-lens Seton Rochwite camera to bring the underworld above ground; these days he uses a digital 3D camera.
McEachern's is a pursuit that comes complete with its own brand of humor. "A caver does know the difference between his ass and a hole in the ground," he joked, eliciting laughter from the dark. But he finds nothing funny about the latest news in the caving community. Fearing the spread of white-nose syndrome, an epidemic that's killed roughly one million bats back East, the Center for Biological Diversity is pushing the government to close all caves on public land in the western United States.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported white-nose syndrome in Kentucky just this month, bumping the number of impacted states to 18.
McEachern maintains a blanket closure is too drastic.
"The policy isn't going to work," he said. "People are still going to go into caves, but now we won't have someone there pushing them in the right direction." Without spelunkers actively promoting a strong conservation ethic, he told his audience, vandalism of delicate natural features will increase.