SHERIDAN — According to history notes on the Tongue River Cave dated May 19, 1940, geology classes in Sheridan High School volunteered to explore and map the cave in the fall of 1937. They guided their way with gasoline lanterns to find a terribly disfigured cave that had been carelessly used to scratch names and dates, smear paint guide arrows and left trails of trash from inexperienced and unqualified visitors.
It’s been 82 years since the cave was officially mapped and there has been no sign of change in the misuses of the cave. Between the trash and the graffiti, the destruction to the cave is adding up and it’s caught the attention of many local stakeholders. The Wyoming Wilderness Association, Hole in the Wall Grotto club, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and the U.S.Forest Service have teamed up to combat the desecration of the local landmark before it’s closed off from the public indefinitely.
“For as long as I’ve been part of the (Hole in the Wall) Grotto club, we clean it every time we come in and out and it’s disgusting,” Lorrain Lehman said. “We typically can fill seven or eight gallon trash bags.”
Lehman said the cave is covered in fishing line, broken bottles, coffee containers, milk jugs, moldy clothing, spray cans, newspapers, magazines and plastic everywhere
The Tongue River Canyon has graffiti scattered on and off the trails leading to the cave. The outside of the cave is covered by years of spray paint leading to the inside. Some rooms inside of the cave have complete murals to depicting what location the spelunker is located.
Community members decided enough is enough. Heidi Davidson, marketing and operations manager for Wyoming Wilderness Association has been gathering local youth to volunteer for the restoration of the local landmark.
“We’ve been trying to bring in the youth to just help some of the problem become the solution,” Davidson said. “We want to teach them a safe caving experience so they are empowered to start a discussion around recreation and our natural resources whether it be for the land or the wildlife.”
Teams are starting at the mouth of the cave.
“We’re focusing right now on the outside because I think it’s a lot about appearance,” Lehman said. “When you walk up to the cave and the first thing you see is graffiti like that, it puts it in your mind that it’s OK, and it’s not.”
A light chemical will be used sparingly to try to remove the graffiti on the outside of the cave and only water will be used on the inside for now to avoid affecting the ecosystem inside the cave.
To enter the cave responsibly, one must apply for a free permit from the U.S. Forest Service that usually takes 24 hours to receive.
Wear helmets, knee pads, pants and gloves to avoid leaving human oils that wreck the terrain. Bring a set a clothes to change into to avoid contaminating the cave.
The restoration project started last weekend with AmeriCorps volunteers collecting trash and washing off graffiti inside the cave.