Freedom of speech shines in Arizona cave

State reinstates biologist fired for criticizing managers at Kartchner Caverns

 

For two months, Matt Chew felt like the child in the fable "The Emperor's New Clothes."

In February, the Boston Globe published an essay by Chew, Arizona state parks ecologist, that criticized the development of Kartchner Caverns State Park, Arizona's latest "show cave" (HCN, 4/24/00: Down under: Arizona boasts the 'show cave of the century'). Chew questioned whether the 12-year, $28 million effort to turn the pristine cave on private land into a state park would save it from destruction. He said the budding tourist attraction scarcely resembled an authentic caving experience.

"The world of cave is both fascinating and uncomfortable," he wrote. "But discomfort is a lousy selling point. So playing Henry Higgins to a geological Liza Doolittle, we civilized the cave."

Chew, who had worked for the parks agency for six and a half years, says he never intended to embarrass the state. He simply wanted to underscore the tradeoffs that come with developing natural wonders.

But the parks agency fired Chew, alleging that he "sought to bring discredit and embarrassment to the state." Because Chew signed his essay with his agency title, the agency accused him of wrongfully using his title for "personal interests and gain." The agency also argued that Chew had misused state property when he sent the essay to the Globe via his office e-mail account.

That's when Chew wondered if his life was turning into a fairy tale. "Who's embarrassing the state?" he asks. "The little boy who says (the guy's) naked or the guy who's naked?" With help from the Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Chew appealed his firing. On May 8, Arizona State Parks reinstated Chew with back pay.

Developing a cave to save it

PEER was particularly concerned by an apparent attempt to keep Chew quiet. Chew says Arizona State Parks Director Kenneth Travous offered him a contract of $10,000 - about three months' pay - for a project that would take about three weeks to complete. Chew says a condition of the offer was that he would resign and promise to keep his mouth shut about agency matters.

The appeal described the proposed payment as an "illegal gift at best and an improper payment of 'hush money' at worst." State officials declined to discuss the agreement because it's a personnel matter, but PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch says, "This was all about the First Amendment."

Chew says that if he had the chance to rewrite his essay, "I would try to make it clearer that I was not criticizing the people who put in all the work." Still, he says, "I don't think that developing the cave actually did save it." Kartchner Caverns would have fared better, he says, if access were limited to film and other remote viewings.

Kartchner Caverns co-discoverer Randy Tufts says that idea was considered but ultimately dismissed.

"The cave was on private land and the only way to justify (state funding for) adequate long-term protection was to make it available for people to see it," he says. "I can't imagine that the Legislature in 1988 would have given the slightest thought to developing the cave as a park if the only thing that people could do was see it on TV."

To protect the caverns, the state has installed airtight doors and chambers that help keep the humidity at about 99 percent and the temperature at a constant 68 degrees. But with every opening of the doors, the fragile environment is exposed to potential contaminants and arid weather. Monitors have already recorded a slight drop in humidity.

"It's now a matter of eternal vigilance," Tufts says. "It's going to be difficult and challenging, but that's what we're going to do."

The author reports on water and other environmental issues for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Arizona State Parks, 1300 W. Washington, Phoenix, AZ 85007 (602/542-4174);
  • PEER, 2001 S St. NW, Ste 570, Washington DC 20009 (202/265-7337).

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Maureen O'Connell

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