History of Kartchner Caverns

Opened & Dedicated November 5, 1999

By Charles R. Eatherly

In November 1974, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts were exploring the limestone hills at the eastern base of the Whetstone Mountains. They were looking “for a cave no one had ever found” and found it. The two kept the cave a secret until February 1978 when they told the property owners, James and Lois Kartchner, about their awesome discovery. Since unprotected caves can be seriously damaged by unregulated use, they knew the cave had to be protected. Tenen and Tufts spent several years looking into the possibility of developing the cave themselves. Some members of the Kartchner family lived in Tucson and were very impressed with the development and operation of Catalina State Park by Arizona State Parks. They decided to approach State Parks to see if the agency was interested in acquiring this outstanding resource.

Late in 1984, Randy Tufts came to the Arizona State Parks office in Phoenix for a meeting with Charles R. Eatherly, Special Projects Coordinator for the Arizona State Parks Board. Eatherly was working with citizen committees around the State to identify sites to be considered for future acquisition as State Parks. Tufts told Eatherly “as you are working on potential Park sites, I understand you are the one who can tell me how a site becomes a State Park.” Tufts asked if he could close the door. After the door was closed, Eatherly asked, “What kind of a resource are we talking about?” Tufts responded, “I cannot tell you.” Eatherly then questioned where the resource was located. Tufts again responded, “I cannot tell you.” At this point Eatherly said, “I am not sure if I’ll be able to tell you whether or not State Parks is interested or able to acquire this resource as a Park but I can tell you the necessary steps.”

The discussion continued on the various processes the State is required to follow in the acquisition of property for a Park from gathering the information to the legislative process and everything in between. Tufts was advised that acquiring a site and creating a State Park was a lengthy process and could take from two to five years with no guarantee of success, and each step of the process would be open to the public.

In 1985, water filled parts of the cave at Kartchner Caverns
In 1985, water filled parts of the cave at Kartchner Caverns.

Tufts insisted that Eatherly had to see the site. A meeting date was set for January 1985. Eatherly met with Tufts and Tenen at the San Pedro Motel in Benson. Eatherly was asked to sign an oath to guarantee secrecy. He advised the discoverers that as a State employee he could not sign such a document.

Shortly after dark, they met outside the motel room. It was a clear, cold evening with a dark sky filled with stars. Before they got into the car Eatherly was blindfolded. With the blindfold in place, the car was driven around town in various directions, and then out to the highway. After a period of time the car was driven off the paved roadway, through a gate that had to be unlocked, and then over a stretch of very rough road. Soon the car stopped and the blindfold was removed. Introductions were made to members of the Kartchner family. The first clue of what was in store came when Tufts said, “What we are going to see is a living cave with rooms filled with beautiful formations.”

With flashlights in hand, the group walked across a flat area, down through a dry wash, and up a rather steep hillside to the edge of a large sinkhole. (Sinkholes are a natural depression occurring in limestone regions and usually formed by a collapse of a cavern roof.) The group dropped over the sinkhole side about ten feet to the bottom and waited for Tufts and Tenen to pull back some rubble from the entrance. Everyone crawled through the small hole and slowly descended down through small chambers and several tight holes towards the Blowhole. (A Blowhole is a vent that permits the escape of air or other gas.) Before entering the Blowhole, the group sat and talked about what was ahead.

After the group had crawled some distance in the Blowhole, Eatherly found he could not move. The space was too small for him to squeeze through. After a short while he managed to get free and back out of this small area into a space where he could sit up. The group decided it would be better to return to the motel.

Everyone returned to the motel and spent the rest of the evening talking about the cave and looking at pictures and slides of the caves beautiful, colored formations. Tufts and Tenen again requested that Eatherly sign a pledge of secrecy. Eatherly said he could not sign the document but he would only talk to State Parks staff.

In 1985, water filled parts of the cave at Kartchner Caverns
Kartchner Planning Group in 1995.

Tufts said Dr. Ed McCullough from the University of Arizona was going to be given a tour of the cave the next day. At this point, Eatherly requested that Tufts and Tenen give a slide presentation to State Parks staff in Phoenix. They agreed to give the presentation and discuss with staff the pressing need for secrecy to protect this outstanding resource.

Upon Eatherly’s return to the State Parks office, he informed Director Mike Ramnes and Deputy Director Roland Sharer of this outstanding potential State Park. He scheduled a meeting with ASP staff for February 6, 1985, to see the slide presentation of the cave Tufts and Tenen called “Xanadu”. ASP staff attending the slide presentation included Mike Ramnes, Roland Sharer, Mike Pastika, Tim Brand, Jim Neidigh, Tanna Thornburg, Paul Malmberg, John Schreiber and Charles Eatherly. Everyone was very excited about the possibility of acquiring this cave for a new State Park. The major concern of staff was getting the necessary appropriation to make the purchase and being able to complete the necessary developments. State Parks staff decided to refer to the cave as Secret Cave. Tufts and Tenen agreed to send the agency a copy of the slide presentation and other cave information to pursue acquisition by the State.

Director Ramnes brought this outstanding resource to the attention of Governor Bruce Babbitt. Shortly after learning about Secret Cave, the Governor, who has a degree in geology, was taken on a tour through the cave by Tufts and Tenen. At the time State finances were very limited. Staff worked with Governor Babbitt on the potential of a State land exchange as one possibility. Governor Babbitt also brought in The Nature Conservancy to assist with acquiring this wonderful resource for the State. Staff continued to pursue various options for acquisition of the cave but it did not prove feasible at the time.

Ken Travous became the Arizona State Parks Executive Director in 1987 and was very interested in Secret Cave. He set a high priority on the acquisition. Babbitt left office in 1987 and the cave lost one of its strongest positive supporters. Director Travous asked staff, “What do you think of using our revenue from Park fees to purchase the cave?” After receiving strong support for this idea, Travous initiated discussions with legislators and determined this would be an acceptable approach for funding acquisition of the property. This approach would not require an appropriation from the General Fund. Special legislation was required to authorize the acquisition and the use of a Certificate of Participation (COP) as the means to acquire the property. By utilizing this approach, State Parks could acquire the property and make monthly payments to pay off the acquisition costs. State Parks hired two appraisers, Sanders K. Solot and Associates for the ranch land and H.C. Cannon for the Cave and worked in partnership with The Nature Conservancy to acquire and protect this natural resource.

In January 1988, Eatherly was serving as legislative liaison for Arizona State Parks and assisted Travous in working with legislators to determine the most feasible approach to having the necessary legislation passed. At the time, Joe Lane was Speaker of the House and the cave was located within his district. It was very fortunate that John Hays was serving as Chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee as he had toured the cave with Governor Babbitt back in 1985. Representative Larry Hawk, Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, assisted the agency in getting a bill passed through the House before the beginning of the impeachment of Governor Evan Mecham. The bill provided the authority for State Parks to acquire the property and established the State Park Acquisition and Development Fund where all park fees and concession revenues would be deposited. From these deposits, the monthly payments would be made to cover the Certificate of Participation (COP), and the remaining funds would be used to pay for the Park developments.

The agency managed to keep the location and identity of the cave a secret, per the wishes of the Kartchner family and the discoverers, except for those people who had to know. To assist in showing the Legislature what the potential State Park resource was, the staff requested and received assistance from Delbert Lewis, owner, of Channel 3 TV. Lewis had previously been involved with State Parks in the development of McFarland State Historic Park, as Governor McFarland was his father-in-law. Lewis agreed to send his staff to photograph the cave and prepare a video presentation for the agency.

Governor Hull and Sheri Graham at the Grand Opening in 1999
Governor Hull and Sheri Graham at the Grand Opening in 1999.

Steve Bodinet, Channel 3 TV special reporter, went into the cave with Parks Director Travous to do the photography. Bodinet narrated, and with other Channel 3 staff, produced an outstanding video of the cave for State Parks. This video presentation was used in closed caucus meetings in both the House and Senate to show the resource proposed for acquisition. Having the caucus meetings closed to the public helped ensure the information about the cave and its location were kept confidential.

Because 1988 was the year of Governor Evan Mecham’s impeachment, the legislators were pleased to have a positive bill to take action on. To ensure passage of the State Parks’ bill that authorized the acquisition of the cave property, the Senate and House met in session at the same time. As soon as one body completed its work on the amended bill, the other body would finalize its actions. This was accomplished in one afternoon and the bill was sent to Governor Rose Mofford’s office for signature. This bill might hold the record for the shortest time taken for any bill to pass through the legislature and be signed into law.

On April 27, 1988, the Kartchner family, Randy Tufts, and Gary Tenen were introduced in both the Senate and House. They all joined Arizona State Parks Board members and staff that afternoon in the Governor’s office to witness the signing of the bill by Governor Rose Mofford.

Suzanna Phister and Governor Napolitano at the Big Room Dedication in 2003
Suzanna Phister and Governor Janet Napolitano at the Big Room Dedication in 2003.

State Parks leased the property on April 29, 1988, and acquired the Option to Purchase from The Nature Conservancy in July 1988. Acquisition of the Kartchner property was finalized on September 16, 1988. Jeff Dexter was selected as the first Park Manager.

Overcoming more than 10 years of unforeseen challenges in research, planning, construction, legislative threats, mining concerns, and legal issues, the upper caverns were ready to open to the public. The developments to this point had cost over $28 million. The Conservation Celebration of Kartchner Caverns State Park was held on November 5, 1999. The ribbon cutting initiated the Celebration with Governor Jane D. Hull, legislators, past and present Parks Board members, Joe Lane, Assistant to the Governor, Ken Travous, Executive Director and members of the Kartchner family. The lower caverns opened to the public four years later on November 11, 2003. Governor, Janet Napolitano, did the honors at this celebration.

 



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