The Clan of the Cavesnail

Tom Aley spent a fortune and more than 30 years of his life defending a creature no bigger than a grain of sand. Beautiful madness or crazy vision?

That means more development, more potential for erosion and toxins. The Aleys know they can deed the land over to the Nature Conservancy, but they also know that will just "put a fence around it" without making it self-sustaining.

Frantic as the aging parents of a special-needs child, Tom and Cathy stay up nights hatching moneymaking schemes to preserve the cavesnail's home. They weren't wild about the implications of emergency protection: An organism that exists only in their cave, under their stewardship, is wasting away in the nature's version of a trashed trailer park. But protected status opened the way for federal help.

Now, they need a guarantee for posterity.

Jennifer Silverberg
Tom Aley and his wife, Cathy, deep in the underground home of the cavesnail
Jennifer Silverberg
Tom Aley and his wife, Cathy, deep in the underground home of the cavesnail

Kitsch is the obvious solution -- big billboards, a giant asphalt lot and a shuttle bus. But Aley refuses to romanticize the cave, tell ghost stories about its lore or make up Platonic allegories about its significance.

His passion is for the natural world, and in his mind the cavesnail's importance is obvious:

"The first rule of intelligent tinkering is, you don't throw away any parts."

Not everybody shares the Aleys' scientific sensitivity, though. People can be blinder than grotto salamanders, blinder even than a cavesnail without a rudimentary eye. When the Aleys heard the standard groans and chortles, they started presenting the cavesnail as an "indicator species" that reveals the clouded condition of the groundwater -- which gives thirsty, selfish people a reason to care.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service accepts that rationale, and so do the five scientists the agency asked to review the cavesnail's status. All agree that the cavesnail is in imminent danger and should be protected.

But nobody called Randy Simmons, who teaches environmental policy in and chairs the political-science department of Utah State University and critiques, from a market-economy perspective, the assumption that every species deserves saving.

"If he's spending his own money, great," says Simmons. "He's saving some bits of DNA that are represented nowhere else. And he has a far better chance of saving the snail than if the cave were on public land, because he can take real action. But if we're spending scarce public resources, I'd want them spent on keystone species, species that structure ecosystems, species higher on the food chain. A cavesnail that's only living in one place? Yes, its DNA is valuable and unique information, but we are not going to be able to save everything. Yes, its problems are an indication of water quality -- but isn't it cheaper to simply monitor the water?"

If the Aleys approached this as economists, they would never have invested $1.4 million in the first place. "We as landowners need to do our part, and so does the public at large," says Aley firmly. He'll take any grant the feds offer. He's saving a cavesnail that belongs to everybody.

His latest brainchild for the future is ecotourism: In-depth guided tours of the cave and the land-reclamation project. Photography outings, archaeology lectures, local recreation, overnight lodging at the nearby marina. An invitation to the public to share in the cavesnail's rescue.

Hardly anybody gets claustrophobic, he promises, and bats don't tangle themselves in people's hair. "An artist came once and said, 'This is the best museum I've ever been in, because you have to look for the exhibits, and they are all where they should be," Aley recalls. "The guy stayed so long he was late for his special dinner, and he walked into the restaurant all muddy, still in jeans, raving about the cave."

Now Aley buttonholes every visitor, asking whether ecotourism would fly.

"We'd have to get the yuppies," he muses. "They'll all come down in their SUVs that have never been off pavement ..."

The old dream, an underground convocation of international scientists doing amply funded research into the natural treasures of the underworld, has started to seem narrow, dry, elitist -- and just plain impossible. Maybe it's time to open the cave to people who never dreamed such a delicate, complicated world existed.

The Aleys could take them by the hand, force them to see beneath the surface.

In return, their money could help reclaim the land, preserve the cave's entire ecosystem and, along the way, save a magnificent obsession too small to be adopted, petted or put on a poster.

The world's only Antrobia culveri.

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