The wildlife-friendly cage over the Empire Cave entrance.
(Via Alex Jones)

‘An incredibly important site’: UCSC closes access to biodiversity-rich Empire Cave

Empire Cave, the popular caving attraction between Empire Grade and the west side of UC Santa Cruz’s campus, has been closed to the general public in an effort to conserve the rare species residing in its depths. Students might still be able to access the cave through school programs.

A long-standing pastime of Santa Cruz residents and students alike is now officially a thing of the past. Earlier this month, UC Santa Cruz’s Campus Natural Reserve worked with the campus carpentry shop to finish installing a wildlife-friendly gate over the entrance to Empire Cave, restricting human access to education and research purposes, according to a UCSC news release. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band will retain access as well.

The cave, colloquially referred to as “Porter Cave” by students, has long been part of UCSC lore. The mysterious depths spark curiosity among the student body and adventurous Santa Cruzans, inspiring some to trek to the Cave Gulch area in the western part of campus to explore the unique structure. A cave usage study conducted last summer recorded 217 groups of people visiting the cave over a 30-day period, totaling 455 individuals entering the cave during that period.

Empire Cave is teeming with non-human life, too. Since scientific explorations began in the 1950s, 76 species have been found within the cave — at least four of which have never been found anywhere else in the world. Per UCSC, a 2017 report by scientists affiliated with the California Academy of Sciences ranked Empire Cave third out of about 1,300 California caves, both in terms of overall biodiversity and “single-site endemic,” which pertains to the concentration of species not found anywhere else. However, the study also mentioned that the cave has been noticeably “trashed” by visitors over the years.

Graffiti on the inside of the cave.
(Via Carolyn Lagattuta / UC Santa Cruz)

“It is really vulnerable to unrestricted access,” Campus Natural Reserve Manager Alex Jones told Lookout. “This is a concrete example of something we can actually do to try to be good stewards.”

The wildlife-friendly gate is essentially a large cage of metal bars with gaps wide enough to allow bats and other species to enter and exit the cave, but small enough to prevent people from entering. Jones said he visits the cave at least quarterly and cleans up what he can, but added that it has become more difficult over time. Many of the cave’s walls are covered with graffiti, and more and more trash has accumulated over Jones’ 12 years in his role, he said.

“Some of these rare species live on the cave walls themselves and can be directly affected by that kind of activity,” said Jones. “So I’ve watched these conditions deteriorate and some of the more visible species seem to become less numerous.”

Jones added that, going forward, Campus Natural Reserve hopes to work with experts and researchers looking to study these rare and little-known species in more detail.

“It’s considered an incredibly important site, and our aim is to develop a monitoring program that’ll allow us to learn more about its biodiversity and see if this management effort has a positive effect over time,” said Jones. “It’s possible that we could learn quite a bit.”

So although students can’t simply enter the cave on their own anymore, Jones said Campus Natural Reserve does provide opportunities for field experiences across many UCSC departments, including art and music, history of consciousness, biology, sociology and more. He said that blocking the cave’s entrance “isn’t going to be a popular move,” but that he believes people will understand the reasoning for sealing the cave off to the general public.

“Many people come [to UCSC] because they love the nature, so some people might be disappointed,” he said. “But so far, the people I’ve talked to understand the rationale for what we’re doing.”

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