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Bills expand Oregon Caves, protect Rogue tributaries

Oregon Caves National Monument would be expanded by more than 4,000 acres and nearly 143 miles of lower Rogue River tributaries added to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in bills reintroduced Tuesday by Oregon's U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio.

The bills would add about 4,070 acres to the 480-acre monument while designating 142.9 miles of 40 streams flowing into the lower Rogue as "wild," "scenic" or "recreational."

Another bill they co-sponsored would designate 29,650 acres in the Siuslaw National Forest known as the Devil's Staircase as a wilderness area.

The three areas are among Oregon's "wildest and most beautiful treasures," said DeFazio, a Democrat from Springfield.

"From the tributaries of the Wild Rogue, to the Cave Creek watershed, to the stunning and remote Devil's Staircase, we have an historic opportunity to leave a natural legacy for future generations," DeFazio said in a prepared statement.

"The Rogue River, Devil's Staircase and the Oregon Caves are fantastic examples of Oregon's beauty and natural diversity," Wyden added. "We are going to make certain they are protected appropriately for future generations."

Both the monument expansion and adding the tributaries of the lower Rogue River were contained in bills introduced by DeFazio and Wyden last year but the bills didn't make the final cut in Congress.

"Both the wild Rogue and the Oregon Caves are Oregon icons," said Joseph Vaile, campaign director for the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

"This would help put southwest Oregon on the map for some of the special places we have," he added. "Both places are economic engines for their local communities. It would also protect outstanding values. So many people going down the lower Rogue don't realize the protected area is only a quarter-mile on either side of the river."

At Oregon Caves, the legislation would transfer some 4,070 acres to the monument from the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, designating the land as a national preserve, according to DeFazio.

It also would protect the first subterranean stream under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by placing the River Styx, which flows out of the caves, under the auspices of the act. All told, 7.6 miles of six waterways in the area would be protected.

Other aspects of the bill would allow the donation of grazing permits and leases associated with the expanded boundary, protect the drinking water source at the monument and increase public recreation opportunities.

The National Park Service has proposed expanding the monument three times, first in 1939, again in 1949, and most recently in 2000. President Taft created the monument on July 12, 1909.

The lower Rogue River bill would create a half-mile-wide protective buffer on both sides of the waterways included in the bill. The river is Oregon's second largest producer of salmon, largely because of the clear, cold water the river's tributaries provide to the main stem of the Rogue, DeFazio said.

The Rogue River is home to runs of coho, spring and fall chinook, winter and summer steelhead, as well as being one of only a few rivers in the country with runs of green sturgeon. Its tributaries also provide spawning and rearing habitat for winter and summer steelhead and coho salmon.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management reports that more than 25,000 people recreate on the Rogue River every year, generating more than $13 million annually to local communities.

In 1968, Congress protected 84 miles of the lower Rogue's main stem under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act because of the river's "outstandingly remarkable values" of high water quality, excellent fishery and recreational opportunities. The protection is from the confluence of the Applegate River downstream to Lobster Creek.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.