The state that's home to the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest will soon acquire another natural wonder a spectacular 21/2-mile cavern kept secret for years for fear it would be vandalized.
The Legislature and Gov. Rose Mofford on Wednesday rushed to enact legislation allowing the state to acquire the cavern discovered 14 years ago near Benson in southeast Arizona.Mofford wore a spelunker's helmet as she signed the bill passed by lawmakers only an hour earlier.
The cave's existence had been a closely held secret since it was discovered in 1974 because its owners feared vandals would destroy its beauty.
"It is a major natural resource find," said state Park Board Director Kenneth Travous, who has twice squeezed through the tiny opening to view the cavern.
"It's fabulous," Travous said. "Walt Disney couldn't have done any better for the state of Arizona. Your imagination goes crazy when you get down there."
The two-room cavern is about 7,000 feet long and from 50 to 100 feet high inside. Thousands of still-growing stalagmites and stalactites ranging from a few inches to 60 feet are found throughout. It's also home to a colony of 700 bats.
In about three years, Travous says, about 100,000 to 150,000 people a year will get to travel by elevator to see the cave. Officials plan to use state park revenues to acquire the site for $1.6 million within a year from the Arizona Nature Conservancy, which soon will buy the site from the family of the late James Kartchner, a Cochise County rancher and educator.
"I imagine I walked over this thing I don't know how many times hunting deer" but never realized the cavern was underneath, said Rep. Gus Arzberger, whose district includes the cave.
The state on Friday sent park rangers to guard the site on an emergency basis as word of the cavern's existence began to leak out. The bill was quickly enacted Wednesday to allow the state to continue to oversee the land.