Protecting the beautiful rivers, wild lands and legendary botanical diversity of Oregon's Kalmiopsis Country

Senators Wyden, Merkley and Rep. DeFazio all present to celebrate Oregon Caves National Monument Preserve

When Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve Superintendent Vicki Snitzler pointed to a ridge top marking the park’s new boundary at a ribbon cutting ceremony on April 10th, a crowd that included Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Congressman Peter DeFazio let out a satisfied cheer. 

The headwaters of Lake Creek, the domestic water source for visitors at the Oregon Caves National Monument is now protected. The area, known as the Bigelow Lake Botanical area is a vast area of springs and meadows.
The expansion of the Oregon Caves National Monument protects the headwaters of Lake Creek, the sole source of drinking water for visitors of the Monument and the beautiful Bigelow Lakes Basin. Google Earth image.

“This is a historic moment. It took all of us working together and persevering to make this a reality,” Snitzler said. “I thank our legislators for their tenacity, and also, Superintendant Craig Ackerman.”

Currently serving as superintendent of Crater Lake National Park, Ackerman had previously led the operation at Oregon Caves and had long-championed the monument’s expansion.

“What a great example of collaboration between our politicians, community members and environmentalists,” Ackerman said. “This could not have happened without all the many elements coming together just the way they did.”

The effort to expand the 480 acre monument began in Teddy Roosevelt’s presidential administration, and after more than 100 years of political roadblocks, at the end of 2014, more than 4000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land was transferred to the National Park Service, to protect water resources at Oregon Caves, promote recreation in Southern Oregon, boost the local economy and improve forest health.

Left to Right - Senator Ron Wyden, Senator Jeff Merkley, Rep. Peter DeFazio and Owen Dwyer at the dedication of the Oregon Caves National Monument Preserve.
Senator Ron Wyden, Senator Jeff Merkley, Rep. Peter DeFazio and Owen Dwyer at the dedication of the Oregon Caves National Monument Preserve. Photo Illinois Valley News

The legislation that finally got the job done also designated the River Styx (that runs through the cave system) as “scenic”  – making it the first underground river to receive that distinction under the federal Wild and Scenic River program.

Snitzler also thanked local community organizer Greg Walter for his tireless contributions; and the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, which played a pivotal role in negotiating a positive outcome with the rancher who held leases for cattle grazing on the lands involved. She also acknowledged representatives of U.S. Forest Service for working to ensure the smooth transition of lands to the National Park Service (NPS).

Overlooking the headwaters of Lake Creek in the expanded protected area on the way to Mount Elijah.
Winter at the Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve and the view of the Bigelow Lakes Basin from Mt. Elijah, the highest point in the new preserve.

“The Oregon Caves is one of our state’s most iconic natural treasures and the monument’s expansion is a fantastic shot in the arm for Oregon’s tourism and recreation economy,” Wyden said. 

DeFazio, who spend 20 years on the effort, agreed, “this is a huge economic opportunity for Josephine County. With more recreational options, visitors will stay longer and explore more, which is why the expansion garnered so much local support.”

The new designation means travel magazines and other publications will feature Oregon Caves more prominently; and it’s hoped the bigger mark on maps will also help focus peoples’ attention on the area.

In a survey of USA Today readers, Oregon Caves was voted the third most popular national monument; and a nationwide poll conducted by placed Oregon Caves in the top ten “best national monuments you never heard of.”

The National Wild and Scenic Illinois River at the Sixmile Creek Recreation site. Photo Barbara Ullian
The beautiful Wild and Scenic Illinois River is another Illinois Valley gem but it’s plagued by alcohol abuse and vandalism. The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest is working to make it family safe. Photo Barbara Ullian

“Another way we’re helping brand the region is through a road tour: ‘The Circle of Discovery,’ that highlights the geological interconnectedness of seven national parks,” said Oregon Caves Media Specialist Christopher Willis. This symbolic circle  includes the Redwood National and State Park, Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve, Crater Lake National Park, Tule Lake Unit, Lava Beds National Monument, Lassen Volcanic National Park and Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.

“We need to tie into the regional tourism economy as a whole,” said Kenny Houck, Business Development Coordinator with the Illinois Valley Community Development Organization. “Oregon Caves is on the way between Crater Lake and the Redwoods – so our businesses, including craftsman, artisans and farmers, all stand to benefit from expanded marketing efforts as well.”

Others say solving the county’s law enforcement crises is also critical. Another world-class draw, the Wild and Scenic Illinois River corridor, has been plagued with litter and alcohol-fueled incidents that prompted more than a few tourists to cut their time in the area short and write negative reviews.

Wyden and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar recently asked the Interior and Commerce Departments to analyze the economic benefits of the nation’s outdoor economy to provide businesses and policymakers with the data they need to ensure the industry continues to thrive.

The 4,000 acre expansion of the tiny Oregon Caves National Monument will provide greater recreation opportunities. The view from Mt. Elijah across the Illinois Valley to wild Kalmiopsis Country.
The expansion of the Oregon Caves National Monument will provide greater recreation opportunities. The view from Mt. Elijah across the fog shrouded Illinois Valley to the wild Kalmiopsis Country in the west.

“It comes as no surprise to Oregonians that outdoor recreation can be as beneficial to local economies as it is to our way of life,” Wyden said. “Our outdoor natural resources are the envy of the world and American businesses have long partnered with and benefited from access to these areas. Over the next year it is expected that our National Parks will see a growth in visitors from across the country and around the world to celebrate the National Park Centennial in 2016.”

Improvements and restorations to Oregon Caves’ historic Chateau are ongoing and the Chalet Visitor Center now features new exhibits, including an impressive replica of the cave system. The Federal Highway Forest Roads program also helped spruce things up by installing new wooden signs along the route up to the cave.

Snitzler said expanded recreation opportunities include hunting and new ranger programs and she added that local outfitters could offer guided hikes up Mount Elijah. Hiking trails at various levels of difficulty abound at the monument, from short day hikes to overnight adventures. 

After the ribbon cutting ceremony, the three lawmakers, dressed in outdoor wear and hiking boots, enjoyed a hike and then a tour through the Cave.

This post is by Annette McGee Rasch. It was first published in the Illinois Valley News on April 15, 2015 under the headlines “Lawmakers and park officials praise collaborative effort to secure monument expansion.”

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