Parks commission considers installing gate at Leatherwood cave

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

By Samantha Jones

The Eureka Springs Parks and Recreation Commission is exploring options to remedy a potential public safety issue.

On Tuesday, May 21, the commission heard from local caver Aaron Thompson about a cave near the Miner’s Rock Trail at Lake Leatherwood City Park. Thompson said he recently received authorization from the commission to explore the cave, saying it is approximately 60 feet deep.

“There was a lot of cave in there,” Thompson said. “Once you slide down that slope, it’s a 20-foot immediate drop. We recommend it be gated to protect the species in there, plus there’s the potential for people to fall in that cave.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” said commissioner Draxie Roberts.

It would cost approximately $4,000 for raw materials, Thompson said, but that doesn’t include the cost of labor. The cave hosts a species of tri-colored bats, Thompson said, and it’s important to protect them.

“I’m here to see … if that’s something you would be interested in doing,” he said. “If so, I will start looking into more of what would be involved.”

Chairman Bill Featherstone asked if Thompson would take care of the installation, and Thompson said he would. The installation would be custom-built for the cave, Featherstone said.

“There is wildlife that needs to be protected in there,” Featherstone said.

Featherstone emphasized that Thompson was authorized to explore the cave.

“We don’t allow anyone access to the cave without permission,” Featherstone said. “Without one of these gates, unless you’re standing there saying, ‘Don’t do that,’ somebody could fall or choose to slide down there.”

He continued, “These guys are professionals. That’s a lot of money, but at the same time, it’s something we’re aware of and we’ve got to address somehow.”

Parks director Justin Huss said Arkansas Game and Fish might have interest in the project as well.

“One of the things they are looking for is isolated populations that haven’t had much traction in and out,” Huss said. “I feel like this has the potential to be one of those populations.”

Roberts asked if there are any grant opportunities to pay for the gate, and Thompson said he doesn’t know of any.

“Well, there is some expense involved,” Featherstone said. “It all comes down to money, doesn’t it? Assuming we can figure that part out … it probably behooves the commission to make some statement in the way of a motion that we want to go to the next step to try to make this happen.”

“We’re not talking about rocket science,” said commissioner Steven Foster, “and we’re not talking about a lot of money.”

Featherstone agreed.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a lot of money,” he said, “and it’s very worthwhile. This needs to happen. It’s way overdue.”

Commissioner Ruth Hager moved to authorize Huss to work with Thompson to figure out what it would take to install a gate in the cave, and the commission unanimously agreed to do so.

Featherstone reiterated how important it is for only authorized personnel to enter the cave.

“I strongly encourage no one to go see this,” Featherstone said. “It’s very dangerous. It’s not just dangerous to your personal safety but to this bat population. Please do not access this cave. No one has permission to do it.”

In other business, the commission addressed the city’s invasive plant problem. Featherstone said a community meeting was held on May 20 where attendees heard from a representative from the Northwest Arkansas Master Naturalists.

“We do have a problem with invasive plants in Eureka … right in town,” Featherstone said. “You have a small window to get out in front of that. If you don’t seize that opportunity, things can get away from you, as it has in many areas. We’re not there yet. We can get in front of this.”

Featherstone said he’d like to see the commission create a committee to create an invasive plant policy, saying Eureka Springs City Council should approve the policy to give it teeth.

“Some of you may be aware Fayetteville has taken pretty aggressive action with regard to invasive plants to the point of actually forbidding the planting of certain plants in new subdivisions,” Featherstone said, “and then offering a way to where you can actually replace existing plants with more native plants.”

Parks volunteer Chris Fischer said it’s important to take action on the issue as soon as possible. Fischer said he supports the way Fayetteville has approached the problem.

“It may sound aggressive, but it really is limited to only new development where a plan would be reviewed and they would make sure you aren’t using Bradford Pear or another invasive plant,” Fischer said.

Featherstone suggested using Harmon Park as a pilot program for the invasive plant policy, and Fischer said that would be a great idea.

“It’s accessible, visible and would be a good pilot project to put our teeth into and take a bite,” Fischer said.

The commission agreed to move forward with a committee, and Featherstone said he’d take the lead on that.

“We’ll get that going and have something to report in a month,” he said.

The commission’s next regular meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 18, at The Auditorium.

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