Oregon Caves expansion bill worries hunters

    Some Southern Oregon hunters fear a bill to expand the size of the Oregon Caves National Monument nearly tenfold would lead to a ban on hunting on those lands now open to sportsmen, though its authors insist it won't.

    The version of the Oregon Caves Revitalization Act that passed the U.S. Senate unanimously last week contains language that says the National Park Service would maintain hunting and fishing access in those current Forest Service-managed lands.

    But skeptics such as Central Point hunter Michael Mull are wary of the Park Service's attitude toward hunters. One of the agency's leaders told a Senate committee last year that the Park Service would "prefer" to phase hunting out in five years should it get management of the surrounding lands.

    The bill would designate more than 4,000 acres of Forest Service land for a preserve and transfer its management to the National Park Service, which manages the Oregon Caves.

    The bill was introduced jointly by Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrats who tout the legislation as a way to preserve the monument, improve forest health and boost the local economy without banning hunting.

    While the bill states the Park Service "shall" permit hunting and fishing on these lands, it provides exceptions to restrict hunting or fishing for public safety and administrative reasons, but only under consultation with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which promotes hunting.

    "I'm concerned the Park Service is planning to eliminate hunting once they get their hands on the land," said Mull, secretary of the nearly 400-member Josephine County chapter of the Oregon Hunters Association.

    "I'm concerned how the Park Service is going to behave," Mull said. "(The superintendent) may restrict road access and restrict hunting down to zero."

    While Stephen E. Whitesell, the Park Service's associate director of park planning, did testify in April 2013 that the Park Service would prefer to phase out hunting on those lands, that language specifically was not added to the bill, said Oregon Caves Superintendent Vicki Snitzler, who believes the bill would not allow a hunting ban.

    The bill states the added lands would be designated as a preserve, which would mean that fish and wildlife management would be handled in conjunction with ODFW.

    "I think it's pretty clear in the text of the bill that hunting must continue," Wyden spokesman Keith Chu said.

    The most recent House version of the bill, House Bill 2489, which was introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., is nearly identical to the Senate bill. The House measure has a hearing scheduled in May.

    Mull said he would like to see language that more firmly keeps the Park Service from arbitrarily restricting or denying hunting.

    The lands proposed for inclusion are popular among black-tailed deer and bear hunters, Mull said.

    Supporters of the bill have couched it as a way of preserving the current 488-acre monument and make it eligible for more federal forest-restoration money than if it stayed within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

    The bill also calls for scenic river designation under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act for the River Styx, which 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.

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