When a tree falls in this forest, the sound it makes is definitely being heard.
A grassroots proposal fueled by opponents of logging and other concerns is gaining traction to transform the 289,000-acre Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois into a national park and the nation's first climate preserve.
Proponents argue the designation would protect a valuable, incredibly diverse major ecosystem from destruction by logging and mining interests. They contend the current government agency that oversees the Shawnee, the U.S. Forest Service, sees the forest only for its trees as a lumber source.
But the proposal has many skeptics who say the U.S. Forest Service has gotten better at managing the Shawnee. They argue that if the national park and climate preserve plan is approved, unchecked invasive species growth could destroy what is currently a vital recreational and economic resource for the region.
In 1996 environmental activists won a 17-year injunction against commercial logging, ATV use and oil and gas development in the Shawnee National Forest. But the U.S. Forest Service produced a new management plan aimed at addressing several of the concerns listed in the 1996 ruling, and in 2013 U.S. District Court Judge J. Phil Gilbert lifted the injunction.
Timber harvesting currently occurs on a few hundred acres each year in the Shawnee. Backers of national park and climate preserve status want that permanently reduced to zero.
Everyone seems to agree that the Shawnee must be preserved. The big question remains: How can that best be accomplished?
"The best thing we can do is to leave those forests intact."
Southern Illinois residents Les and Judy Winkeler took a trip several years ago to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and the Congaree National Park in South Carolina. The Winkelers are big fans of natural areas and were impressed with the flora and fauna they saw, until they put it in perspective with what they had almost in their own back yard.
"There is a four-square-mile area in LaRue-Pine Hills, part of the Shawnee National Forest, that has more species of plants than all of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park," Les Winkeler said. "As we drove back home we discussed that the Shawnee is about five times larger than Congaree and it's so much more diverse. I mean my God, why isn't Shawnee a national park?"
About the same time, the Winkelers saw a documentary about the 1990s effort to save the Shawnee National Forest from logging, and lengthy discussions ensued.
"Friends who are environmental activists were some of the principals in the documentary, and we had dinner one night and decided, 'Hey, let's try this,'" Winkeler said.
Winkeler is the retired sports editor of The Southern Illinoisan newspaper, headquartered in Carbondale, and still does outdoor writing on contract for the paper. He wrote a column based on that dinner conversation, suggesting that the Shawnee become part of the National Park Service. The column also put forth the idea that the Shawnee be designated the nation's first official climate preserve, an intact ecosystem that would remain untouched to help sequester and store greenhouse gases to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
Pope County, Illinois, resident John Wallace was one of the group of friends who came up with the national park and climate preserve idea.
"The mission of the Park Service is to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources for current and future generations. It's a better agency for actually caring for our public lands," Wallace said. "The Forest Service has 'productivity' in their mandate. They fall under the Department of Agriculture, agriculture produces products, and the biggest product that the Forest Service has is trees."
Wallace is perhaps the most well-known environmental activist in the Shawnee. For more than 34 years he has fought against logging and development in the forest, even going to jail once after he chained himself to a piece of logging machinery.
"I've seen the devastating impacts to wildlife, to natural communities, from their commercial-industrial log extraction programs. I am aware of how unjust it is," Wallace said. "Eastern deciduous forests like the Shawnee are quite good at sequestering carbon, often better than some of the old-growth forests out west. The best thing we can do is to leave those forests intact.
"We hope this starts a movement around the country, especially in the Midwest, of creating more preserves out of our public land," Wallace said. "We need to take drastic action, not subtle action, not politically viable action, not moderate action, to reduce our carbon production. Otherwise we face ecological collapse."
"It's imperative that those types of activities remain permitted."
The city of Carbondale, which sits at the northern tip of the Shawnee National Forest, passed a resolution Dec. 13, 2022, supporting the creation of the Shawnee National Park and Climate Preserve.
"The city is intrigued by the possibility of this designation because the focus then would be on conservation and preservation, and we could see a boon to tourism," said Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams. "We have a lot of hotel rooms and Airbnbs, we have 13 wineries on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, so there is evidence to suggest that the creation of a national park will help facilitate additional tourism visits."
Carbondale adopted a sustainability action plan last year and Williams said the city council feels that having a climate preserve is a way to utilize the forest to achieve some of their long-term sustainability goals. He said the designation wouldn't affect traditional Shawnee recreational activities.
"Local residents in particular hunt, fish and trap in the Shawnee, so it's imperative that those types of activities remain permitted," Williams said. "Under a preserve you can define all of those activities and ensure that local residents can continue to enjoy the Shawnee as they have before."
The Illinois Audubon Society, based in Springfield, also passed a December 2022 resolution supporting the national park and climate preserve proposal.
"Our mission is preserving the plants and animals of Illinois, and the proposal is in line with that, so we supported it," said Illinois Audubon Society Executive Director Joanne Fessett.
The Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau promotes the area as Shawnee Forest Country and considers the forest to be a key draw for the region, but remains neutral on the national park and climate preserve proposal.
"There certainly could be some benefit that a national park would bring, but we work well right now with the Forest Service, and of course, if that were to happen, would continue to work with the National Park Service," said Bureau Executive Director Carol Hoffman. "We love promoting the area in any way we can with whatever agencies are appropriate."
The first step toward changing Shawnee's designation would be to convince Congress to authorize a feasibility study by the National Park Service. The land in question is already owned by the federal government so there would be no large land purchase expenditure.
The office of Congressman Mike Bost, whose 12th Congressional District includes the Shawnee, did not respond to a request for a comment on the proposal.
"Some of the finest land management in the nation."
Tim Pohlman is the U.S. Forest Service Ranger for the Shawnee National Forest. He acknowledged that the Forest Service had gone through a dearth of management several decades ago in the Shawnee, but is proud of the progress the agency has made in recent years.
"It is disconcerting that all of our harvests are reported to be clear cuts and that's not the case. We are being told that we're not meeting our objectives and that's not the case either," Pohlman said. "There's some thinking that if you leave all of the trees standing, then that stores carbon. But just thinking that all we ever have to do is never cut another tree, well, the situation is more complex than that."
Pohlman said the Forest Service authorizes approximately 150 to 200 acres of timber harvest per year and those harvests are "partial cuts" where "we go in and take about half of what is there, maybe a little less, and leave the rest of it there for several years," he said.
Pohlman said that most of the harvesting occurs among the 40,000 acres of non-native pine trees that were planted in the early 20th century to help guarantee a steady supply of timber for the United States. Timber management also occurs in areas of the forest that contain oak and hickory, but Pohlman said the management in those areas is intended to bolster those desirable, original hardwood tree species.
"Oak and hickory don't tend to do well in shade, they get out-competed by other species like maple, beech, elm and tulip poplar," Pohlman said. "To maintain oak and hickory in the forest you have to work at it a little bit and create some gaps in the canopy so the light can get down to the forest floor"
The Forest Service partners with several organizations, particularly The Nature Conservancy, to eradicate the nearly overwhelming amount of invasive plants that are choking out life on the Shawnee forest floor, particularly plants like bush honeysuckle and autumn olive. The partners conduct prescribed burnings on 10,000 acres each year and use mechanical removal and herbicides where appropriate to remove the invasive plants.
"Invasive species are so pervasive across the forest and it's our concern that if the Shawnee shifts to a different agency that the focus won't be as much on management, like invasive species control and prescribed fire," said Tharran Hobson, the Southern Illinois program director for The Nature Conservancy. "Without management they're going to become a real problem, and some of the areas that folks love because of the scenic beauty are going to be lost over time."
"The Forest Service is doing a much better job now," Hobson said. "There was a lot of criticism in the 1980s and 1990s but it's a completely different Forest Service. The amount of planning and professionalism that goes into a lot of their projects is completely different."
The Illinois Forestry Association is an organization of those who support conserving and managing Illinois' five million acres of forest, including those with commercial interests. The association is a strong supporter of the way the U.S. Forest Service currently manages the Shawnee.
"We think it offers a perfect balance of carbon sequestration, recreation, wilderness and forest management, it really is a climate reserve as it sits," said Illinois Forestry Association President Paul Deizman. "We think the forest leadership there practices some of the finest land management in the nation."
Deizman said creating a national park in the Shawnee would be difficult because of the "checkerboard" nature of the current national forest footprint, which contains nearly as many parcels of private as federal land. He also said a national park designation would prevent responsible stewardship of the forest.
"Logging is certainly something that is part of a managed forest at some point," Deizman said. "If nobody touches a forest, stands of trees die and that also gets attention."
The Sierra Club usually falls on the side of environmentalists on issues, and is behind the idea to eliminate logging, drilling and mining in the Shawnee. But the transfer of the Shawnee to the National Park Service is another matter.
"We have seen firsthand how the number and amount of invasive plants has exploded in the last 10 to 15 years, and we are concerned that areas in Shawnee National Forest will not be managed to protect these areas from being taken over by invasives," said Barbara McKasson of the Shawnee Group, Sierra Club Illinois. "We also know the Forest Service has been working on timber restoration in several high-quality natural areas, and they have been able to increase the amount of management with help from groups such as The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club."
"Nature keeps moving."
President Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 to help ensure a steady supply of construction timber for the United States, and famed conservationist Gifford Pinchot was the agency's first Chief Forester. The Forest Service currently administers 154 national forests
Pine trees were often planted on national forest land to keep the lumber supply going, particularly on marginal agricultural land such as was done in the Shawnee. But the Shawnee has not been a major source of construction timber for some time, according to Barry Johnson, the executive director of the Illinois Lumber and Material Dealers Association
"Most of the supply of lumber that we use to build homes is pine and comes either from Canada or the southern United States," Johnson said. "The supply we use to build homes with is soft wood, and what you're talking about in Shawnee is primarily hard wood."
So, should the Shawnee be a hands-off or a hands-on resource for the region, state and nation?
"The Shawnee should stay with the U.S. Forest Service, and the Forest Service needs to be a little more assertive and not cower to every little group that wants to change something," said consulting forester Bill Calvert from Breese, who has worked in the region for many years.
"The idea is sustainable forestry. As the big trees get old you cut those before they die, then you perpetuate the forest by letting the smaller trees grow, and young trees sequester a lot more carbon than older trees because they grow faster," Calvert said. "Some of the environmental groups don't want them doing anything, not one tree, not one bush, nothing. You can't do that, nature keeps moving. So if you want to try to keep it as natural as possible, you've got to manage it."
Les Winkeler knows that the creation of a hands-off Shawnee National Park and Climate Preserve faces an uphill battle, but there are several factors that give him hope.
Winkeler notes that there's the current focus on the global climate and efforts to utilize trees to sequester as much carbon as possible. There are no national parks in Illinois and a lack of Midwest national parks in general, with the closest, besides St. Louis' Gateway Arch, being Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Indiana Dunes along the Great Lakes.
Winkeler is realistic, but optimistic, about the grassroots Shawnee effort.
"I think the ultimate chance of success is pretty good," Winkeler said. "I'm 68 years old and I would love to see it in my lifetime. I think that's realistic."