Spelunk, Spelunk, Fizz, Fizz

State parks worker canned over Kartchner Caverns column

As an employee of the Arizona State Parks Department, Matt Chew first entered Kartchner Caverns through a shaft drilled for access to the southern Arizona wonder. He left the Parks Department last week by shaft as well, fired because of an opinion piece he wrote for the Boston Globethat was critical of his department's management of the caverns.

Chew, 42, a planner for the department, had reservations about Kartchner Caverns State Park, which the state opened to the public last November, and his essay, headlined "A Theme Park Grows Beneath the Ground," was a reflection on the paradox of protecting the caverns while making them accessible, in effect taming them for public consumption.

"When you maximize the number of people you can get in a cave," he told New Times, "then you don't necessarily maximize preservation of the cave."

That was his opinion, and when he put it in print, it cost him his job. Chew was fired on March 9.

Letters signed by Parks Director Kenneth Travous accused Chew of misconduct, specifically of using his position at the department for his "own personal interests and gain" -- he'd been paid $400 for the essay -- and for "wrongfully misus[ing] the State's computer and e-mail system to correspond with and deliver the article to the Globe and make revisions."

Finally, the letter said, "Your misconduct also wrongfully sought to bring discredit and embarrassment to the State."

And that may have been Chew's greatest sin. As Chew puts it, he told somebody that their baby was ugly.

Kartchner Caverns took 11 years and $28 million for the Parks Department to open, provoking threats, warnings and ultimatums from a state Legislature wondering what was taking so long. Since it opened last fall, it has seen as many as 500 visitors per day.

Ironically, in the weeks before Chew's job-ending transgression, Parks Director Travous had been called on the carpet before the Legislature for his own excesses. In 15 months, his staff had spent more than $43,000 on travel to Bermuda and Europe, especially to promote Kartchner Caverns. Travous had traveled to Germany to promote the caverns and had attended symposiums about caves held in Bermuda and Italy. He even admitted using his state credit card to charge an airline ticket for personal travel, an amount he paid back after coming under scrutiny.

Travous declined comment on Chew's dismissal and wouldn't talk about his own problems with the Legislature.

Chew had worked for the department for nearly seven years. As natural areas program coordinator, he was supposed to research and identify land the department could purchase or manage, not to be developed as parks but to remain as "natural areas." He'd taken an interest in the resident bat population in Kartchner as well.

His Globe essay came out of conversations he'd had with a reporter for National Public Radio. NPR had produced a three-part series on the caves; Chew had met the reporter at the park, and though he was not interviewed for the NPR series, he e-mailed a critique to the reporter. The reporter then connected him to theGlobe.

"We took something unimaginable," Chew wrote, "and reduced it to what we could imagine, the predictable product of an unremarkable mindset.

"We present the 'cavern as edifice,' a secular cathedral, replete with mostly self-commissioned monuments to those who commanded and contributed to its completion. But there is also 'cavern as artifact,' a mystical, adored and untouchable self-containing reliquary; the garishly lighted 'cavern as art,' and the unexplainable 'cavern as performance venue.' (Yes, there is a stage and seating inside.)

"You also get the 'cavern as classroom' with inescapable, insatiably informative tour guides; and finally, 'cavern as elevator,' complete with the appropriate musical score. What happened to the 'cavern as cavern'?"

Chew went on to describe his first visit to the cavern, before it had been retrofitted for the public. He'd climbed in through a hole and traveled by the light of a headlamp. He slipped and fell and at times had to get down on his knees and crawl. And this, he reasoned, however sarcastically, was a far cry from well-lighted walkways that comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

"The development inside was not the kind of thing you would do when your main purpose was to preserve," Chew told New Times, specifically "putting in lots of concrete trails and switchbacks and really replacing a lot of the cave floor with construction."

The Globe sent Chew a check for $400, which he says he donated to Bat Conservation International.

On February 24, Chew received a "Notice of Charges of Misconduct and Intention to Dismiss" from Travous. He was given three days to respond. Chew wrote back that he had not embarrassed or discredited the state, but rather had "described the differences between the pre-development and post-development KCSP experience. I did not state that the development and operation of the cave is wrong, but rather it provides an intensively managed visitor experience. . . ."

He also implored Travous to help him resolve the disagreement. Instead, on March 9, Travous had a notice of dismissal hand-delivered to Chew.

Chew intends to appeal the firing.

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: michael.kiefer@newtimes.com

 
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