The National Speleological Society (NSS) is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Huntsville, Madison County. Conservation of caves and cave resources is one of the primary missions of the NSS. To achieve that mission, it studies and explores caves, protects and limits access to caves, encourages landowners and visitors in the responsible management and use of cave environments, and promotes responsible caving techniques. The NSS has only two full-time and two part-time employees at its Huntsville headquarters who manage the business and finances aspects of the organization and operate the bookstore and library, so volunteer members are crucial to carrying out the daily business and meeting the goals of the organization.
The NSS was formed in 1941 by a group of individuals from the Washington, D.C., area. The society has since grown to more than 12,000 members who belong to 200 "grottos," or local chapters, in 45 states. These grottos bring cavers together within their local areas, and many lead field trips to explore nearby caves and hold social and conservation-focused events.
The NSS is administered by a Board of Governors consisting of a 12-member directorate whose members are elected for three-year terms, and a five-member executive committee elected by the directors that manages and supervises all business of the society. The board meets three times a year, and at least two of these meetings are hosted by grottos in various parts of the country; the third meeting is held in conjunction with the annual NSS convention. The directors are responsible for establishing the overall goals, strategies, and policies of the society, and reviewing and enacting the budget.
The NSS sponsors an annual convention and also participates in international speleological events and meetings. In addition, individual grottos hold various events ranging from caving trips to skills training classes. The society also lends its support to cavers and cave owners, initiates cave conservation legislation, encourages responsible management of federal and state-owned caves and surrounding lands, and provides cave manage‧ment symposia and workshops to land owners and managers.
The NSS owns or manages 13 preserves that protect subterranean resources. Each preserve is cared for by a local management committee, and most are open to NSS members only. One of those preserves, Shelta Cave Nature Preserve, is located directly beneath the NSS headquarters in Huntsville. The NSS acquired the cave in 1967 and moved its headquarters to a building above the cave. Shelta Cave is more than 2,500 feet long and provides habitat for cave crayfish, cave shrimp, and other animals—all within the city limits of Huntsville. The NSS borrowed $11,000 from The Nature Conservancy to purchase the cave and two acres around the entrance. Many of the other preserves protect unique cave systems, such as New York's McFail's Cave, the longest cave in the northeastern United States with more than 6.7 miles of mapped passages; Florida's Mill Creek Sink, which is an underwater cave system; and Great Expectations Cave in Wyoming, which features a large underground room called the Great Hall that is more than 2,000 feet long and 100 feet high. The rest of the preserves are located throughout the United States and protect a variety of natural speleological resources.
To achieve its goal of cave conservation, the NSS supports affiliated organizations and activities. These organizations include NSS conservancies, which are organizations that own, lease, or manage caves, and conservation task forces, which are groups of members or an organization that has been established to investigate and resolve an identified conservation issue. The society also supports dedicated projects and expeditions such as the Caves of Montana Project, which is dedicated to finding, exploring, and surveying caves in the state of Montana.
Education is also a large component of the NSS mission. The society publishes cave-related books and journals on topics including caving skills and cave rescue, surveying, conservation, history, and photography. The NSS also owns the nation's largest speleological library, located at its Huntsville headquarters which is open to the public, and promotes educational programs such as cave rescue courses and a cave-diving instruction program. Members also provide educational programs to schools and youth groups and collaborate with organizations such as the National Park Service to develop materials and training programs for educators. The society's Junior Speleological Society provides special activities and training for cavers under seventeen.
Funding for annual NSS expenses of more than $700,000 comes from membership dues, donations, and profits from the Huntsville bookstore. In addition to supporting the operations of the NSS, the money is used to provide grants to support research, conservation, education, exploration, and cave science. Grants and loans are used to purchase land to protect caves.
Alabama has seven grottoes, each of which has active membership programs ranging from field trips to educational programs. The large number of caves in the state offers Alabama grotto members a variety of locations for cave exploration within easy driving distance. The state grottoes have been instrumental in the discovery, mapping, and clean-up of several state caves. Grottoes also have participated in cave bat inventories in Bankhead National Forest and in discovering new populations of gray bats and Indiana bats and previously unknown species and populations of endangered cave shrimp. Alabama grottoes often collaborate with the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Inc., a Georgia-based nonprofit group that works to preserve caves in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia.