Way down under

At New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns, descend into a world of mystery

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I ask whether vast Lechuguilla Cave, which was not thoroughly explored and mapped until 1986, will ever be opened to the public. It sounds irresistible ― there are stories of selenite crystal sprays forming "chandeliers" hanging 20 feet down and helictites twisting like the tresses of Medusa. "Not a chance," says Richards. Even the most cautious human intrusions alter a cave's ecosystem by introducing organic matter such as sloughed-off skin cells and assorted microorganisms hitching rides. Some caves need to be preserved as pristinely as possible because you can never predict what you'll find ― or how you might accidentally destroy it. Lechuguilla's natural beauty isn't its most amazing quality, Richards says: The cave has yielded medicinal microorganisms that selectively attack cancer cells.

On his tours, Richards likes to spin off cave science and environmental ethics, blending them into a compelling case for why we surface dwellers should care about caves. There are still too many people, he says, who don't. "I would play hooky in high school to go caving," he tells me, laughing. "My history teacher would say, 'Jason, caves are never going to do a thing for you.'"



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