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Cleaning up the Caves

Graffiti removal project targets Boyd Cave in the Deschutes National Forest



A popular lava cave in the Deschutes National Forest was "untagged" this month as part of a graffiti removal project. Using commercial sandblasting equipment, volunteers from the Oregon High Desert Grotto, Western Cave Conservancy and Wanderlust Tours tackled the challenging job of removing graffiti from Boyd Cave along Forest Road 18, also known as China Hat Road.

A shaft of light illuminates Boyd Cave, its condition already improved by volunteers. - DREW PICK
  • Drew Pick
  • A shaft of light illuminates Boyd Cave, its condition already improved by volunteers.

Sections of the cave, from floor to ceiling, have been tagged by vandals with obscenities, images and names over the years throughout the cave's 1,860-foot length. A large "NINJA" in black letters greeted visitors just inside the cave entrance.

"I've been crawling through these caves since I was a teenager, so I have a pretty good idea of what's going on out there," said Neil Marchington, chairman of the Central Oregon caves graffiti project. "I remember visiting the Redmond caves while I was in high school and being appalled at the graffiti in it. It's very fulfilling all these years later to head up a project that gets rid of the graffiti."

Wanderlust Tours owner Dave Nissen and Chief Operations Officer Jeff Gartzke, along with OHDG, proposed a graffiti removal project to the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the China Hat area. Before Deschutes National Forest staff issued a Categorical Exclusion that allowed the project to move forward, they evaluated the sand blasting technique, conducted a survey for cultural properties and provided wildlife guidelines aimed specifically at protecting bats.

"Most people don't realize that caves and cave environments are very fragile," said Laurie Turner, USFS wildlife biologist. "They are a non-renewable resource. So, if something happens in a cave, it doesn't bounce back like what we'd see above ground."

Nissen said that before Wanderlust began leading tours in 2003, staff hauled out 585 pounds of trash from Boyd and Skeleton caves that year alone. Nowadays, trash is minimal, but spray-painted graffiti has always been a problem—especially in Boyd Cave, which is open all year.

A volunteer sandblasts graffiti inside Boyd Cave. - DREW PICK
  • Drew Pick
  • A volunteer sandblasts graffiti inside Boyd Cave.

Wanderlust and COVA both donated $1,000 for equipment and supplies. A crew of Wanderlust and OHDG volunteers worked the weekend of Sept. 7-9, hauling in buckets of a chemically inert blasting medium quarried from the Willamette Valley, along with work lights, air hoses, compressors and tarps to collect the blast medium, which was hauled out of the cave and sifted for reuse. Volunteers inside the cave wore protective clothing and respirators, while a lone volunteer remained outside the cave entrance to inform visitors that the caves were closed for sand blasting and safety.

"There are some real challenges to sandblasting in cave environments because of high humidity, total darkness and fogging of the protective gear while sandblasting," said Marchington. "It's a lot more challenging than working in a well-lit commercial shop."

Nissen added that since Boyd Cave opened to the public, his hope was that people will appreciate seeing unmarked caves. "Hopefully, this project will shed a positive light and help mitigate the propensity of marking the caves," said Nissen.

"We wouldn't be able to do this cleanup without the help of our partners and we value their involvement greatly," said Turner. "We have a very unique resource here with our caves and we hope the users will respect and help protect this fragile environment for future generations to come."

To report vandalism, call the U.S. Forest Service at 541-383-5300.

Oregon High Desert Grotto

Wanderlust Tours

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