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Caves expansion worth the wait

Among many items slipped into the must-pass defense appropriations bill before Congress adjourned was a matter of some interest to Southern Oregon, and a long-awaited one at that: the nearly tenfold expansion of the Oregon Caves National Monument. The expansion is vital to the long-term preservation of the caves and to the economy of the Illinois Valley and the broader region as well.

The Oregon Caves monument was created in 1909, 35 years after they were discovered by Elijah Davidson. Although the initial proposal was for more than 2,000 acres, the monument was established as only 488 acres, which was considered sufficient to protect the caves at the time.

That small patch of land remained all there was to the monument for more than a century, although expansions were proposed in 1939, 1949 and 2000. In 2008, expansion bills were introduced in Congress but did not pass.

In 2011, Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley reintroduced a measure in the Senate, and Rep. Peter DeFazio pushed a bill in the House. While the legislation was making its way slowly through Congress, the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center worked with an Applegate rancher to buy out grazing permits his family had held since 1937.

The expansion will add 4,000 acres to the monument, including Mount Elijah, named for the caves' discoverer, the scenic Bigelow Lakes and the entire watershed above the caves. In addition, the River Styx, which flows through the caves, will become the nation's first Wild and Scenic river that runs entirely underground.

National Park Service officials hope the expansion will help draw attention to the monument, which has seen declining public visits in recent years. Having a 10-times larger presence on maps will help, but so will offering hiking trails and camping opportunities within the monument itself, something that wasn't possible before.

Protecting the health of the watershed that feeds the caves is vital, and will ensure this jewel of Southern Oregon will be around for another century and more. Members of the Oregon congressional delegation, past and present, deserve credit for not giving up on the legislation.

The next step ought to include some funding to restore and maintain the miles of roads and trails for which the Park Service is now responsible. The bill that passed included no such appropriation. But for now, it's enough to know that the monument's future is secure.