Cave at your own risk: NM state law releases landowners from liability
Hundreds of caves and passages make up the Carlsbad Caverns' system.
But hundreds, even thousands more could be undiscovered beneath privately owned land.
And landowners unwittingly share in an important piece of history and geological information.
A New Mexico senate bill was signed into law on Feb. 4 by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to make those undiscovered caves easier to explore.
Senate Bill 77 added cave exploration to a list of land uses that for which owners would not be liable, if they grant permission.
Other uses included in SB 77
- Aircraft operation
What is the landowner not responsible for?
The bill specified that the owner, lessee or person in control of the land – who allows individuals to use the land for the prescribed purposes – does not assure that the premises are safe for the activity.
The owner was also not required to maintain the lands as safe for the uses or accept any liability for an injury that might occur on the property.
This applies whether permission was granted, or the land was trespassed upon.
How is a cave defined in the law?
In adding cave exploration to the list of activities landowners are not liable for, SB 77 defined a “cave” as “a natural geologically-formed void or cavity beneath the surface of the Earth, not including any mine, tunnel, aqueduct or other manmade excavation.”
Why is the distinction important?
George Veni, executive director at the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) in Carlsbad said the bill could help advance the science of speleology.
He said he worked on similar legislation in the 1980s in Texas, and it strengthened the cave exploring community throughout the Lone Star State.
“This is a win-win for everyone,” Veni said. “It makes it easier for us to go caving. It relieves concern many have for liability. There are so many landowners who are afraid that if you get hurt or killed, they’re liable. Now you can say that by state law, you aren’t.”
Exploring more caves could also help provide a better understanding for Carlsbad’s water supply, Veni said, as much of the region’s drinking water passes through karstic aquifers and is filtered through narrow underground passages.
It could also help cavers discover more “showcase caves,” he said, which are opened up for tourism.
“Most of those are found by someone exploring a hole in someone’s back pasture,” Veni said. “Now those are thriving businesses.”
Diane Joop, associate director of education at NCKRI, said the bill will expose more caves to discovery.
“It allows people, if the landowner is willing to allow, it opens it up to more discovery,” Joop said. “It’s really a law for recreation. It allows us the freedom for doing recreation.”
She said similar laws exist in other states, and SB 77 gave clarity to landowners who might worry about spelunkers under their land.
“If (caving) is included in the list, it gives clarity to the landowner,” Joop said. “They know they’re protected is someone goes exploring on their land.”
Caving is an important form of outdoor recreation, Joop said, especially in the Carlsbad area known for its vast system of underground caves – many still undiscovered.
“If it’s done responsibly, it’s something that is a lot of fun. It can bring a lot of confidence to yourself,” she said. “For discovery and science, they’re the last unknown place we can go. We’ve been to the top of (Mt.) Everest, and while that’s hard to explore, caves are also hard to explore.
“There’s a lot of undiscovered caves, and there’s a lot of undiscovered passages within those caves.”
Finding those caves isn’t as dangerous as many think, Veni said.
“If you know what you’re doing, and you follow the rules, the most dangerous part of caving is driving to the cave,” he said.
Veni said cave safety falls into four categories: safety for one’s self, those around you, the cave itself and the landowner.
“We don’t want to do something to mess things up for the landowner,” Veni said. “We develop friendships with them. If I can hunt or fish on your property and you’re not liable, then you shouldn’t be liable for cave exploration.
“The more we find, the more we study and the more we know.”
NCKRI planned a talk by the Pecos Valley Grotto, a group of local cavers, every third Thursday of the month. The next meeting is at 7 p.m., Feb. 21 at NCKRI.
What else is the Legislature doing for outdoor recreation?
Lujan Grisham and a group of state senators and representatives are working to provide more state support for outdoor recreation through Senate Bill 462.
That bipartisan bill would establish the Outdoor Recreation Division within the State’s Economic Development Department.
SB 462 was slated to be heard and voted on in the Senate Conservation Committee, as of Monday.
The Division would be led by a director appointed by Lujan Grisham and would recruit outdoor recreation business to New Mexico, while helping communities apply for funding to develop and promote recreation opportunities.
The Division would work closely with local governments and Native American leaders in developing recreational opportunities, read a news release from the governor’s Office.
The bill would also create an outdoor equity grant program, to provide low-income children with outdoor recreation communities, awarding grants to tribes, pueblos, non-profits and schools.
Lujan Grisham said New Mexico has many opportunities for outdoor recreation, and the state is poised to be national destination.
“I want to show the rest of the country that’s engaging in outdoor recreation: We can do it better,” she said.
“New Mexico has as much natural beauty as anywhere in the world. We are going to bring in businesses that enliven our rural communities, partner with our tribes and pueblos, and we are going to send a beacon to tourists and young adults the world over: New Mexico is yours to explore.”
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Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.