Ronal C. (Ron) Kerbo‘s career illustrates the heights of individual achievement possible when one pursues their life’s passion. Born in Oklahoma, Ron grew up in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico where he developed a singular passion for caves. With an early work history on oil rigs, Ron nevertheless mastered a wide range of technical knowledge about cave geology, biology, hydrology, and their interactive processes—all without formal education. By some accounts he became personally familiar with thousands of caves worldwide.
He began his National Park Service (NPS) career in 1976 at Carlsbad Caverns National Park (NP) as a cave specialist. Throughout his career, Ron worked tirelessly to promote the understanding and protection of cave and karst resources, both within the NPS and with partner organizations. He eventually rose to become the NPS National Cave and Karst Program Manager, raising awareness and professionalism in this area to levels appropriate for an agency charged with caring for more than 3900 caves in 121 park units, including many of the nation’s most incredible and fragile cave resources.
When Ron was recruited to build a nationally coordinated approach to cave management in 1996, he was already a recognized expert and worldwide leader in the cave management, particularly cave preservation and public access. He was keen to advance both but tended to favor cave protection in order to keep caving resources and experiences in national parks fresh for each generation.
Many cave features are incredibly intricate and fragile, often the product of thousands of years of delicate processes, and are vulnerable to disturbance. Access to these caves can bring vast changes to subtle and isolated cave ecosystems. As an example of early leadership, Ron led the attempt to remove the popular 700 seat cafeteria at a 750 foot depth in Carlsbad cave because of its impact on the cave’s ecology. He also coordinated the NPS role in the initial exploration of the newly discovered Lechuguilla Cave, one of staggering beauty and complexity.
While leading the NPS national cave program, Ron built a partner-friendly national program to match the scope of NPS caves. Drawing upon in-house park expertise, he also developed and expanded key relationships with the caving community. The NPS had long benefited from the activities of caving organizations that provide mapping and research expertise, and Ron was a respected liaison to both the caving community and to their national organizations.
While working at Carlsbad Caverns and then at the national level, Ron continued to work closely with City of Carlsbad, Senator Jeff Bingaman’s office (NM) and other national and state representatives, to pursue legislative authorization and funding for establishing the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI). Ron was a key player in the NPS 1994 Report to Congress on the significance of cave/karst resources. Largely due to the persistent efforts of Ron and his cohorts, Congress passed the National Cave and Karst Research Institute Act of 1998, which directed the NPS to establish NCKRI in partnership with the State of New Mexico and the City of Carlsbad. The NCKRI was formally established as a non- profit institute in 2006 and Ron served for a time as acting director. The NCKRI is now fully operational and as Ron envisioned many years earlier now serves as a focal point, clearinghouse, and integrator for national and international cave research, information, and exploration.
Since his retirement in 2007 Ron has remained active in the world of caving. He remains an internationally recognized cave expert and his advice has been sought by many nations grappling with how to provide access and protection for their cave resources. He and fellow NPS Carlsbad Cave specialist Dale Pate co-authored On the Desert’s Edge. (2007). An adept spinner of yarns about underground adventures most of us cannot imagine but are frequently true and always technically sound, Ron is a gifted advocate for caves. He is truly one of a kind, and his public service did much to establish the NPS as an authority on the resources it has been given to protect.