Should a leak occur and the air inside the cave mix with that outside—where the average humidity ranges from 58% to 29% and temperatures fluctuate up to 85°—Kartchner could dry up and die. "Moisture in a cave is similar to blood in the body," says Travous. "It's what nourishes it and keeps it alive."
Travous, who calls Kartchner a "world-class cave," expects it to be opened to the public in 1995. Its features include numerous "soda straws," hollow stalactites that are still dripping water and still growing in length. One of these is a fraction of an inch in diameter and 22 feet long, believed to be the longest soda straw found in any cave in the world.
"Some of these straws have fallen from the ceiling, stuck in the mud floor and stand three feet high," says Travous. "It's amazing to think they might have fallen 2,000 years ago, and in that time no one came along to knock them over."
Kartchner is also filled with decoration and color. Its walls are not simply a dull gray, as they are in many caves, but an array of blacks, oranges, reds and whites. Among the unusual formations is a pure-white disk of calcite, called a shield, that is four feet across and looks like an angel's wing. The cave also contains a giant column of travertine that is 55 feet high and eight feet across.
Bridgemon says that Kartchner is unique in that unlike almost every other commercial cave, it has not been explored and vandalized before its opening.
"Colossal Cave [also in Arizona], for example, had 70 years of visitation before the government stepped in," says Bridgemon. "Now all of a sudden you have Kartchner, which hasn't been visited much at all. It'll probably be the nicest cave in the West that's open to the public, up there with Carlsbad in New Mexico."
Tufts and Tenen remain wedded to the cave. In 1988 they formed Arizona Conservation Projects. Inc., a nonprofit organization designed to assist the state in opening and maintaining Kartchner Caverns. "We felt the cave would always need an advocate," says Tenen. "Stewardship of a resource like this is a responsibility we just couldn't walk away from. I wanted my grandchildren to have the same view of the cave its discoverers had."
Tufts says the effort that started in 1974 to protect a single cave has evolved into an education and conservation project with lessons he hopes can be applied to all caves. And like Tenen, he says his involvement with Kartchner isn't over yet.
"To me it's a work of art that won't be complete until it's open." says Tufts. "That's when I'll be ready to psychologically relax, to say that my contribution is complete."