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S. Ind. Lost River cave system gets U.S. protection

INDIANAPOLIS — A mysterious river that dodges in and out of Indiana's second-largest cave system is getting federal protection.

The federal government announced this week that it will buy 244 acres near French Lick that include part of the Lost River and its cave system. The government is buying about 20,000 acres of natural areas from North Carolina to Oregon.

The Lost River and its cave system are in the Hoosier National Forest in Southern Indiana and are home to several rare species of cave fish and insects, including a few that have not been found anywhere else. It's a wild and sometimes dangerous area that some describe as a natural treasure.

"The Lost River cave system is one of the most interesting geological sites in all of Indiana," said Angela Hughes, government relations associate for the Nature Conservancy of Indiana.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday that the purchases will protect clean water and fish and wildlife habitat, absorb private holdings within wilderness areas and support outdoor recreation spending that contributes $14.5 billion annually to the nation's economy.

The government will buy the Lost River parcels from the Nature Conservancy for about $546,000, Hughes said. The conservancy has owned the land about 10 years, and the U.S. Forest Service will take it over after the purchase is complete in a few months.

The area is expected to remain open to the public; representatives from the forest service couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

Hughes said that it's important to protect the cave because, "from a biological standpoint, (it's) really sensitive." Pollutants on the surface can seep into the cave and impact the wildlife within it, she said.

The cave also is one of Indiana's greatest geological gems, she said. The Binkley cave system in Harrison County is the state's largest.

Julian Lewis, a Borden-based cave biologist who has explored the Lost River cave system a few dozen times, said it is unique not just for its size — it's more than 20 miles long — but for the variety of creatures that live inside it.

"It's one of just a handful in the U.S. that have that many cave animals present," he said. "It's on par with the major cave fauna sites of North America, like Mammoth Cave" in Kentucky.

Lewis discovered a new type of beetle in the cave in the 1990s. The still-unnamed beetle is tiny, red and has no eyes, he said. It's now on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

Blind cavefish, blind crayfish and blind crickets also live in the cave. Bats are rare because the cave can flood to the ceiling, he said.

That's why inexperienced cavers should stay out of it too, he said.

The Lost River cave system is reputed to be dangerous, and some have died while exploring it because of the flooding.

"Even as wild cave systems go, it's a pretty wild one," Lewis said. "You're looking at deep water, tight places, lots of mud. It's a pretty inhospitable place, and it will flood to the ceiling in a heartbeat."