Lint-removal task force will descend into Oregon Caves

Aspecial team of spelunkers equipped with tweezers and toothbrushes will enter the famous cavern at the Oregon Caves National Monument on Saturday.

The 16 are volunteers who will be searching for what is commonly found in a person's belly button: clothing lint.

The daylong effort marks the fourth annual cave cleanup at the monument.

The goal is to remove lint and small debris left by the roughly 50,000 visitors who came through the cave in the past year, explained geography information specialist Elizabeth Hale, who will lead the expedition.

"The lint builds up," she said. "In the drier part of the cave, it looks like the lint that comes from your clothes dryer. In the wetter parts, it mixes with mud.

"We've even come across strands of lint hanging from cave formations," she added. "It's a natural occurrence from all our visitors. It sheds off your clothing."

Between three and four pounds of lint — dry weight — have been found during each annual cleanup, said Hale, who has participated each year.

While the lint, which includes threads, hair and flakes of skin, may be small, its accumulation can impact the delicate cave life, she said.

The cavern houses thousands of species of critters, from fungi to insects, making it a unique natural biodiversity for scientists to study, according to the National Park Service.

"Not only does the lint look bad but it is affecting cave life," Hale said. "It took a while to clue in that this was happening. But it creates an alternate food source for non-cave invertebrates. It creates an unnatural condition."

Before each tour, visitors are told about the problem and asked to make sure they don't drop wrappers or anything else that may pollute the fragile cave environment, she said.

"People in recent decades have become more aware of the potential damage to caves," she said, although noting that one graffiti incident occurred in the past year.

The annual tour season at the monument concludes near the end of November, then resumes again in mid-March.

The lint removal team will be equipped with helmets, headlamps, disposable gloves and kneepads. Although they won't get paid, they will get a free lunch and an opportunity to spend a full day in a unique environment, officials said. The volunteer slots are full for this year's event.

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

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