Thanks to the presence of a huge subterranean cafeteria, the 2 million visitors to Carlsbad Caverns National Park each year can gawk at stalagmites and stalactites while nursing a cold sandwich and soda.
But the crumbs may not
fall where they have been. The National Park Service and
conservationists are going against a chamber of commerce and the
New Mexico congressional delegation to decide the fate of
Carlsbad's sandwich shop. Operated by park concessionaire Cavern
Supply Co., the lunchroom was built 67 years ago, 750 feet beneath
the broiling southern New Mexico desert, to feed weary tourists
walking through the cave by torchlight.
some park visitors celebrate the 700-seat dining hall as a cultural
phenomenon as enticing as the cave itself, critics say it is an
inappropriate relic. Cave experts also say food particles are
attracting a menagerie of exotic organisms that displace
cave-dwelling creatures that have evolved over thousands of
Last year, the Park Service issued a
report calling for the lunchroom's removal. Agency officials also
recommended that the concessionaire consolidate its facilities in
an above-ground dining room.
But just as the
lunchroom appeared to be history, New Mexico Rep. Joe Skeen, R,
intervened and demanded that an independent panel review the Park
Service's findings. Although the panel reaffirmed the agency's
conclusions, Skeen did not give up.
pulled the plug on federal funding aimed at eliminating the
lunchroom: By adding an amendment to the Interior Appropriations
bill, which sets the Park Service budget, Skeen stipulated that,
should Cavern Supply Co. fail to win the contract for food service,
any new park concessionaire will not be required to remove the
facility. New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R, sponsored the same
amendment in the Senate version of the bill, virtually assuring
that the lunchroom will stay below ground at least one more
Skeen, Domenici and a cadre of Carlsbad
businesses say the lunchroom offers an important nutritional
service to visitors who might get hungry during their cave tour.
Yet it takes only 60 seconds to travel by elevator from the depths
of the cave, to other food services on the
"No other trail of similar distance in
the Park Service has a lunchroom along its length," says Ron Kerbo,
the agency's national cave expert. "The greatest distance one would
have to walk without food in Carlsbad is little more than a mile.
The idea that one needs nutrition after only 5,280 feet is
John R. Johnson, the Carlsbad
Chamber of Commerce executive director, says the lunchroom and
Carlsbad are synonymous, noting that the concessionaire has
billboards across the state which read "Eat lunch 750 feet
underground." Johnson fears fewer visitiors will come if a
subterranean lunch is denied.
say by cutting off funding for the concession's removal, New
Mexico's congressional delegation is forcing the Park Service to
violate provisions of the recently passed Cave Resources Protection
Act, which assigns a low priority to
"The National Park Service has taken
a bold stand on the side of cave protection and conservation, and
seems to be getting knocked to its knees by the interests of
private business," says David Jagnow of the Pajarito Grotto, an
organization of cave explorers.
staffer with the National Parks and Conservation Association, says,
"To justify this (luncheonette) is like asking that a Sno-cone
stand be erected every three miles in the Grand Canyon."
Park Service officials are not willing to
surrender. John Cook, the agency's Southwest regional director
headquartered in Santa Fe, N.M., says the agency plans to collect
more evidence to prove its point.
"Carlsbad is a
national park that belongs to all the people of America," says
Cook, "and we believe they want it protected. There's no question
in my mind the lunchroom is causing ecological damage to this
The writer lives in
Sen. Pete Domenici can be
reached at 427 SDOB, Washington, DC 20510-3101 (202/224-6621). Rep
Joe Skeen can be reached at 2367 RHOB, Washington, DC20515-3102
(202/225-2365). The address of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park
is 3225 National Parks Hwy., Carlsbad, NM 88220