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Oregon Caves expansion closer to reality

An effort to expand the size of the Oregon Caves National Monument nearly tenfold cleared a major hurdle Thursday when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a large packet of bills that includes the decades-long expansion effort.

The Oregon Caves Revitalization Act, which would transfer more than 4,000 acres of Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest lands to the U.S. Park Service, was one of a suite of public lands bills attached to a federal defense re-authorization bill that the U.S. Senate was expected to take up soon.

The bill would transfer management of more than 4,000 acres of Forest Service land around the monument to the National Park Service, which manages the Oregon Caves. The addition would include the entire Cave Creek watershed.

The bill had been before Congress for the past seven years, with previous versions formally proposed by the Park Service in 1939, 1949 and most recently in 2000.

If passed by the Senate, this public-lands package of bills will be the first of its kind adopted by Congress since 2009, when the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area east of Ashland was authorized, said Joseph Vaile of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

"These don't come around very often," Vaile said.

The bill package also includes measures to designate new, locally supported wilderness areas in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, as well as legislation that would protect lands in the North Fork of the Flathead River drainage in Montana from hard-rock and future oil and gas drilling and fracking.

At the Oregon Caves, the additional lands around the current monument would be in the form of a preserve, so it would include hunting access generally not allowed on park service lands.

It's been touted by Oregon's congressional delegation as a way to preserve the monument, improve forest health and boost the local economy.

The move would add protection to the lands because logging and other operations allowed on Forest Service lands are banned on park service holdings.

The current monument covers 488 acres, including the marble cave, in southwestern Josephine County about 20 miles east of Cave Junction near the California border.

The bill also calls for scenic river designation under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to the River Styx that travels through the caves. If adopted, it would be the nation's first such distinction for an underground waterway.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Anthony Zeberoff of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, negotiates a tight passage on his back during an off-trail caving tour at Oregon Caves National Monument. Mail Tribune file photo