The desire to protect water, however imperfect in its application, and to preserve sensitive sites in their current state, came after terrible and irreversible degradations caused most of the time by ignorance, but sometimes voluntarily, either in the form of plunder with a mercantile aim or through pure vandalism.
Impassioned debates took place between the partisans of self-discipline during explorations and visits and the defenders of a total freedom of exploration (congress French Fédération of Speleology of Thonon in 1978).
They reveal the existence for different people of a speleological culture characteristic of the places in which they evolved and especially their region. This conditioning led to different perceptions of sensitivity according to whether explorations were carried out in not very fragile mountain caves, or in very decorated caves, in a plateau region.
This vagueness was of little help to the subterranean environment and sometimes led to regarding installations made with iron or concrete as examples of protection. If the colonization of virgin spaces was defended by Western thought at one time, the occupation of below the earth appears to be a continuation of this ideology.
The caves protection commission of the F.F.S. was at the origin of actions at the national level from the 1970s: tracts and posters on protection of speleothems, subterranean waters and the biotope, training courses, educational visits and protected caves, publication in 1989 of a thematic edition of "Spélunca" on the protection of caves and of the karstic environment, voluntary action for the protection of bats and subterranean archeological sites.
Techniques of protection
Ways to avoid soiling caves are taught by the French Federation of Speleology. Practical solutions are recommended, for example the limiting of movement on the ground using coloured ribbon, taking boots off when the risks of making marks are too great or unrolling a plastic sheet in front of oneself to preserve speleothems on the ground.
The same goes for the cleaning and restoration of speleothems; various techniques are have been elaborated and employed successfully. Many clubs have become real experts on the subject.
Studies have been undertaken on the impact of human presence under ground. They relate to all the factors which can modify the internal climate of the caves and so have consequences for the formation of speleothems, cave paintings and the biotope.
In the 1980s, at the request of the F.F.S., or with its agreement, remakable cavities were the object of listing procedures on the State level, either with the title of Natural Sites or Historic Memorials. These cavities contain major scientific elements which it is important to keep intact, in particular in the fields of speleothem formation, prehistory and archaeology.
These measures are effective. Nevertheless improvements are hoped for, notably in relation to the burden of administration, the means available, and the modernization of the statutory texts necessary to cover new situations.
For example, the exploring cavers had a feeling of deep injustice when they found themselves distanced from their discoveries by landowners, simply over a question of private property, or by the State. The role of speleologists must be advanced and recognized because they are, in 90 % of cases, at the origin of the discovery.
The future of caves
To defend the subterranean heritage is an absolute necessity. The very future of caving depends on it. It is something to which we all are emotionally attached and which is at the origin of a national heritage of an incomparable richness, which is still growing.
The thinking of the French Federation of Speleology is clear and unambiguous: the protection of the karst is a priority. There are sufficient non-sensitive caves in France to answer the needs of various types of caving. On the other hand, it is absolutely necessary to protect those caves which deserve it.
Claude VIALA's text, President of the French Union of Speleology of 1996 to 1999.
Extract of "Spelunca Mémoires" n°23, 1997.