Park Service trying to evict cave cafe

  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.


While 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 years.


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.


He recently 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 year.


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 surface.


"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 ludicrous."


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.


Environmentalists 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 development.


"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.


David Simon, 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 world-class resource."


* Todd Wilkinson





The writer lives in Bozeman, Montana.


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 (505/785-2232).