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Bill expanding Oregon Caves National Monument advances

This 2005 photo shows Fran Mainella, then director of the National Park Service, looking at a feature of the Oregon Caves National Monument outside Cave Junction, Ore., highlighted with a flashlight by tour guide Chas Davis. (Associated Press)
This 2005 photo shows Fran Mainella, then director of the National Park Service, looking at a feature of the Oregon Caves National Monument outside Cave Junction, Ore., highlighted with a flashlight by tour guide Chas Davis. (Associated Press)
Jeff Barnard Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Decades of efforts to expand the Oregon Caves National Monument to protect water quality and reduce the danger of wildfires are on the verge of paying off.

A bill expanding the boundary around the southwestern Oregon marble caves to include its watershed has been attached to a defense spending bill, which passed the House on Thursday and is expected to pass the Senate next week.

Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio said Thursday one of his first projects after being elected to Congress in 1986 was trying to get the U.S. Forest Service to cede land around the monument to the National Park Service, and when that didn’t work, to pass legislation.

The bill includes designation of the River Styx running through the caves as the nation’s first underground wild and scenic river.

Discovered by a hunter chasing a bear, the marble caves were designated a national monument covering a 480-acre rectangle in the Siskiyou Mountains outside Cave Junction in 1909 by President William Howard Taft. The park service formally proposed expanding the monument to encompass the surrounding watershed in 1939, 1949 and 2000. The bill would add 4,000 acres defined by the surrounding watershed rather than an arbitrary line on a map. The area includes Bigelow Lake.

The monument is the site of The Chateau, a six-story lodge that opened in 1934 and is a National Historic Landmark.

To accommodate hunting and give conservationists a chance to buy out an existing cattle-grazing permit, the expansion area will be designated a national preserve, said Joseph Vaile of the conservation group KS Wild. The group has been paying the permit holder not to graze for three years, and it hopes to raise money to permanently retire the permit.

DeFazio said the park service plans to start thinning overgrown forests to reduce the threat of wildfire and establish new hiking trails, which should draw visitors for longer stays that are expected to help the local economy.

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