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Natural heritage: Local cave site one of 12 state areas open Saturday for tours

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Wil Orndorff, with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, stands at the entrance to Ogdens Cave in Frederick County. The cave and surrounding property is one of 12 natural preserve areas across the state that will be open to the public Saturday to recognize the 25th anniversary of the department’s Natural Heritage Program. Dennis Grundman/Daily

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Orndorff holds some native blue stem grass in a restored prairie area on the Ogdens Cave site. Dennis Grundman/Daily

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A view of the fields at the Ogden Cave site is seen from a hilltop on the property, which totals about 115 acres and is one of 60 natural preserve areas in Virginia.

By Laetitia Clayton-lclayton@nvdaily.com

Wil Orndorff has been exploring Ogdens Cave in Frederick County since he was a student at Strasburg High School.

Now 44 and working for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Orndorff has a chance to share the site with others when the DCR's Natural Heritage Program holds a field day event Saturday.

To celebrate 25 years since the Natural Heritage Program was launched, 12 natural area preserves across the state -- including Ogdens Cave -- will be open to the public for the day, with each event including guided group hikes and natural history interpretation by Natural Heritage staff and volunteers.

Orndorff will help guide the tour of the cave and surrounding preserve area, which totals about 115 acres. He said the DCR acquired the site after the Frederick County Sanitation Authority applied to develop Blue Spring as a county water source in 2005. The spring feeds Buffalo Marsh Run, Orndorff said, and the stream in Ogdens Cave is a subterranean branch of the run.

If the Blue Spring water supply were to dry up, it would also affect Buffalo Marsh Run, he said.

"We were very concerned about what would happen to the ecosystem [in the cave] if the water supply got cut off," Orndorff said.

In addition, a rare cave beetle was discovered in Ogdens Cave around that same time. The thin-neck cave beetle had last been seen in Crystal Caverns at Hupp's Hill, but it was more than 50 years ago, Orndorff said.

"So seeing that beetle here was a pretty big deal. It was a pretty good find," he said. "We had always wanted [the site], but it had been way down here on the list. That beetle put it at the top of the list. It ramped the biodiversity of the property through the roof."

Also discovered in Ogdens Cave was the Appalachian spring snail, which was just placed on the state's endangered species list in 2005, he said. "It was total luck."

The cave's population also includes millipedes, crustaceans, bats and spiders, Orndorff said.

And yet another discovery at the site was the state-endangered wood turtle -- a large, colorful turtle that uses Cedar Creek and its tributaries, and hibernates underwater,
Orndorff said.

"They're a really beautiful animal," he said, adding that the turtles have been ID'd to help deter people who take them to sell.

"If they show up in a pet store, [the person] will be caught," he said.

On Saturday, visitors will walk to the cave's entrance, but for safety reasons will not be allowed all the way inside. The cave has nearly a mile of mapped passages, Orndorff said, and parts of it can be dangerous.

A native warm-season grasses restoration project also is under way at the site, with the goal to have only grasses that grew there in 1491, Orndorff said, "So people understand that natural heritage that was here when we came here."

The native grasses will create a totally different community for small animals and insects, he said, and grouse and quail will come back.

"We've got a lot of work to do here," he said. "It's not just about the cave here, it's about the whole natural heritage this site represents."

Tom Smith, director of the Natural Heritage Program, said the DCR selected the 12 sites for the field days event with the aim to offer a variety to the public, distributed across the state.

"We picked sites that are either spectacular places for people to go to," -- like Buffalo Mountain in Floyd County -- or places that visitors don't normally get to see, Smith said, like Ogdens Cave.

The DCR has 60 preserves in Virginia, and only 20 of them have public access facilities, he said, such as parking areas and self-guided trails. Many of the sites are not open to the public on a regular basis.

Saturday's event is the first time a group of statewide sites has been open at the same time, and also a first for tours of cave sites, Smith said.

"So we wanted two caves on the list," he said, with the other being Unthanks Cave in Lee County.

Smith said Saturday is not only a way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Virginia's Natural Heritage Program, but also a way to spread the word.

"It's helping to increase awareness about the system," he said. "These beautiful and special places people can visit."

Ogdens Cave Natural Area Preserve is closed to general visitation to protect the delicate natural communities and species that inhabit the cave. Saturday's tour of Ogdens Cave is already full, but Orndorff said he can arrange another tour if there is enough interest. To find out more, call 804-786-7951.

For a list of all the sites that will be open Saturday and to register, visit http://go.usa.gov/05X. Advance registration is required.

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