In the late 1980s, large parts of beautiful southeastern karst landscapes started to be closed to recreational access and threatened by development. A small group of caving enthusiasts started talking about how to protect a beautiful and pristine part of the landscape that many people don't think much about: caves.
SCCi was the brainchild of Jeff and Alexis Harris, two long-time cave conservation activists from Georgia. In 1991, they called together a group of about 20 caving enthusiasts to discuss the idea of starting a cave conservancy. Back then, the idea that cave explorers could come together to buy and manage large numbers of caves seemed reasonable, but they also knew that a conservancy would require huge sums of money and a vast amount of volunteer labor.
After that first meeting, everyone agreed to move forward. After more planning meetings, the newly formed Southeastern Cave Conservancy received official 501(c)3 status in November of 1991. At first, the small group thought that the way the new conservancy would actually own caves would be through donations, conservation easements, or maybe leases. The small group of leaders thought they might be able to afford to actually buy a cave every once in a while, just as long as the property didn't cost too much.
The group has been much more successful than the founders could have imagined. Over 30 years later, SCCi protects 178+ caves on 35 preserves in seven states. How did SCCi founders do it?
SCCi was lucky in its early years. The founders benefited from good advice and guidance from many people and organizations. They modeled the new group after the Nature Conservancy and sought that group's advice for how to be successful. They also got lucky right away when a local caver donated a very popular cave in Trenton, GA, Howards Waterfall Cave, to the start-up conservancy. This generous donation set the stage for many other projects in the years to come.
After getting started, the new board started to talk about a good first project. Many in the group were very fond of Fox Mountain in Rising Fawn, GA, and the wonderful caves hidden under the mountain's craggy surface. The only problem was the property potentially for sale was over 300 acres-- hefty acreage with a hefty price tag.
As the group pondered whether or not to try to buy Fox Mountain, the board got word that one of the most beautiful and popular caves in the southeast, Neversink, was for sale. The board knew they had a better chance of paying for the 86 acres at Neversink. The purchase took three years to finalize.
The purchase of Neversink put SCCi on the map. People who were previously skeptical of a cave conservancy became enthusiastic about the group's mission and goals. People jumped on board to help the group pay off the $50,000 mortgage. Over $30,000 was raised before the closing. The remaining $20,000 was financed by a loan from an anonymous supporter. The loan amount was raised and repaid in less than six months. In all, more than 400 people donated money to the project and became honorary owners of a "piece of the pit."
Over the years, SCCi has acquired well-known and loved caves such as Kennamer Cave, Limrock Blowing, Valhalla, and Fern Caves Surprise Pit. SCCi did eventually buy a large piece of land on Fox Mountain and some wildly popularly caves. For other caves that weren't available for purchase, like Sinking Cove Cave, SCCi has worked out long-term lease and cooperative management agreements.
After more than 30 years, SCCi protects some of the most important bat habitats, caves with spectacular biodiversity, and important watersheds. All of this will provide opportunities for cave exploration, hiking and scientific study.