By BILL STEINBACHER-KEMP
Shawnee National Forest:
This summer two Illinois congressmen, Sydney Yates of Chicago and Glenn Poshard of Carterville, became key figures in a national debate over the management of the federal government's expansive national forest system. The two Democrats were involved in the legislative debate over the management of Illinois' only national forest, the 265,000-acre Shawnee at the southern tip of the state. The last two summers saw angry protests over logging practices in the Shawnee National Forest, the largest natural area remaining in the state.
National forests are run by the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the Department of the Interior, which manages the national park system. The distinction is important since national forests are managed for their resource potential as well as their conservation and recreation potential. These "working forests" can be subject to mineral, oil, gas and timber extraction. Tripoli and fluorspar, two valuable minerals, are currently mined in the Shawnee. A revised management plan proposed by the Forest Service this year includes limited oil exploration.
Two 100,000-acre tracts comprise the bulk of the Shawnee forest. The southeast section spreads across Gallatin, Saline, Hardin and Pope counties; the southwest section covers portions of Jackson, Union and Alexander counties. The two large tracts, are connected by the forest stretching through Johnson and Williamson counties. The U.S. Forest Service manages the Shawnee from its office in Harrisburg.
The debate over the management of the Shawnee is not confined to southern Illinois. Throughout the nation, including Indiana, with its Hoosier National Forest, and Ohio, the site of the Wayne National Forest, a debate is raging between pro-business and pro-environment factions over the future of the national forests. In fact, the same debate plagues management of Illinois three state forests, which are overseen by the Department of Conservation, During the last several years controversy has accompanied logging at the Trail of Tears State Forest in Union County, located on the Shawnee's western border.
Poshard, representing southern Illinois' 22nd District, is an ardent critic of the Forest Service's current logging practices, but he envisions a forest that provides fair opportunities for the logger, bird watcher, camper, bicyclist and the all-terrain vehicle (ATV) rider. Poshard is careful to walk the very thin line between the environmentalists and those wanting fuller development of the forest's economic potential. The second-term Democrat from Williamson County pressured the Forest Service to abandon controversial logging practices such as clearcutting, a practice whereby all the trees in areas as larger 40 acres are harvested.
Yates, the venerable old-guard Democrat whose Chicago district (9th) is 350 miles from the Shawnee's stands of oak and hickory, is a newcomer to the Shawnee debate. After meeting with environmentalists last year in his Washington, D.C.. office. Yates decided to use his seniority on the House Committee on Appropriations to restrict logging. "Yes, I'm from Chicago," Yates says, "but the Shawnee is a treasure that belongs to the entire state." With his ability to pull purse strings, Yates his sparked several turf battles between the Forest Service and Congress. Environmentalist Jan Wilder-Thomas, who was on a hunger strike this summer to protest logging on Shawnee Forest's western edge, says, "Yates is one of our strongest allies."
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The Shawnee is the nation's second smallest national forest, and contrary to state road maps, it's not an uninterrupted stretch of forest spreading over 10 counties. The forest is actually a patchwork of smaller forests separated by farms, small communities, private forestland, highways and state parks. Environmentalists contend that the Shawnee's small size and its patchwork makeup cause it to be extremely susceptible to the destructive potential of logging. Although the practice of clearcutting entire hillsides (a method still used to decimate the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest) is prohibited in the Shawnee, environmentalists say that the Forest Service condones logging practices which are almost as destructive. The federal government continues to allow timber companies to use "group selection" logging, a method whereby tracts as large as two acres are clearcut. Poshard calls group selection a form of patch clearcutting, and he advocates a logging practice that harvests an area no larger than three-fifths of an acre.
The forest's ecological value is unchallenged. Federal and state surveys have uncovered more than 150 endangered and threatened plants and animals within the forest including Bachman's sparrow, the snowy egret and the spring cavefish. One region around Pine Hills Recreation Area in Union County features more than 1,150 species of vascular plants, more than are found in the millions of acres in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
During the last four years, environmentalists have pressed successfully to reduce the annual timber harvest cap. Before 1988, the Forest Service capped the annual timber harvest at 12 million board feet. A 1988 agreement reduced the annual harvest to 10 million board feet, and the Forest Service proposes in its revised plan to more than halve the annual harvest to 4.3 million board feet. According to Forest Service estimates, 143 acres of average hardwoods will produce one million board feet. On a smaller scale a 90-year-old oak tree will produce about 7,000 board feet. Although environmentalists are calling for a ban on all hardwood timber harvests (the pine stands common to southern Illinois are not indigenous — they were mainly planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression), Poshard says the 4.3 million board feet cap is an acceptable compromise.
The legislative maneuvering this congressional session to restrict logging in the Shawnee occurred in conjunction with a month-long bitter protest against the Forest Service in Jackson County. The Forest Service approved the sale of a 141-acre stand of oak and hickory in August, and environmentalists descended on the sale site to prevent logging trucks from entering the area. The Regional Association of Concerned Environmentalists, a local environmental group, and Earth First!, a national environmental group that condones "ecoterrorism," staged daily protests. Dozens of protestors were arrested, and the Forest Service charged logging opponents with placing metal spikes in trees to hamper cutting and harm loggers. Despite intensive lobbying by Poshard and Yates, the Forest Service remained committed to the timber harvest. Back in late February, the Illinois congressional delegation requested that the Forest Service halt all pending timber sales in the Shawnee. Despite the request, the Forest Service moved forward with the sale, contending that it was honoring a contract signed in 1985.
Poshard positions himself as a voice of reason between the strong-willed environmentalists and the timber industry. He says logging is okay as long as it's practiced in an "environmentally sound" manner. With Yates' help, he restored language in a House bill this session to maintain the ban on clearcutting, and he extended the ban to include group selection cutting. In addition, the House version prohibited the Forest Service from using funds to administer any timber sales approved prior to fiscal year 1992. The latter measure was inserted to prevent a repeat of the emotional protests that occurred this summer. But the Senate passed a watered-down version of the House restrictions. "It's not all that we wanted," Poshard says of the Senate version, "but it's certainly a long way from where we were and definitely a step in the right direction." He says a pending House-Senate agreement on restricting logging will likely be a compromise between the two chambers. "The process can be frustrating, but we're making real progress," he says.
The depressed economies of Illinois' southernmost counties serve as a grim backdrop for the logging controversy. According to the Illinois Department of Public Aid, three of every 10 residents in Alexander County are on public assistance, double the rate in Cook County. Areas of southern Illinois have some of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Most
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of the counties experienced stagnant or declining population and economic activity during the 1980s. In fact, the boom in state prison construction during the last decade was one of the few bright spots in the region's employment outlook.
But business and political leaders say further reductions in logging will not cause economic dislocation for the region. Unlike the small logging communities that dot the Pacific Northwest in northern California, Oregon and Washington, the larger communties of southern Illinois, such as Harrisburg, Carbondale and Murphysboro, are not dependent on logging. Poshard agrees with environmentalists who say that scaling back logging will have no noticeable impact on the region's economic health. The region's largest circulation newspaper, the Southern Illinoisan, has editorialized on several occasions in favor of further restrictions on logging. Missouri-based East Perry Lumber Company and a West Virginia operation are the most active logging interests in the region, so that revenue earned from Shawnee harvests is not invested in the region. Southern Illinois has dozens of small independent mills that cannot compete with these two out-of-state giants. The Illinois Department of Conservation estimates that 90 percent of the state's four million acres of forest-land are privately owned; two-thirds of which are private woodlands held by farmers. Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra's Rural Affairs Council is promoting logging as an economic development alternative for private landholders and farmers.
In addition, Poshard says, taxpayers lose money from Shawnee timber sales. The Forest Service pays to survey sale areas, build logging roads and monitor the harvest. According to Forest Service estimates, it has lost more than $3 million in Shawnee timber sales between 1987 and 1990. Last year alone the Forest Service estimates it lost $1.06 million. "Logging just doesn't make sense if you're losing money," says Poshard.
Not all southern Illinois residents applaud the hard-won victories of environmentalists. The Conservation Coalition, a group formed this year in Pope and Hardin counties, is opposed to the goals of the environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Regional Association of Concerned Environmentalists. Comprised of sportsmen, Illinois Farm Bureau members, ATV users and timber industry employees, the coalition is concerned that further restrictions on logging and recreational activities such as ATV use will hurt the economies of the state's southern-most counties. Coalition member Ray Morris, who is also a member of the Pope County Chamber of Commerce and the Southern Illinois Tourism Council, says the national forest is a resource that can fuel economic growth in the struggling region.
"I'm concerned about the future of Pope County and whether there will be jobs for the next generation," he says.
Various disagreements between environmentalists and groups such as the Conservation Coalition illustrate that the land-use controversy extends beyond the contentious issue of logging. The Sierra Club chapter representing the Shawnee region is calling for scenic river status for six eligible streams, federally designated wilderness protection for three old-growth forest area and increased restrictions on ATV use. The Sierra Club charge that 286 miles of ATV travelways are near candidate scenic rivers and federally protected natural and wilderness areas.
This summer the Forest Service conducted open meeting to solicit public input into the proposed revision of the Shawnee management plan. The plan, which acts as blueprint for the Forest Service, was first instituted in 1986 and later revised in 1988 after an agreement was reached among recreation, timber, mining and environmental interests that opposed the original plan. The revised plan will set management priorities, including timber practices, for the next 10 years. The public comment period concluded August 15, and a revised plan is due sometime early next year.
The Sierra Club is proposing that the management plan incorporate Camp Hutchins, a 2,900-tract of undisturbed Ozark hill habitat on the forest's western edge, into the National Wilderness Preservation System. Such designation would ban timber harvests and motor vehicles for recreational activities in the area. Because Camp Hutchins is adjacent to the Bald Knob-Clear Springs wilderness areas and the LaRue-Pine Hills ecological area, the wilderness designation would create a 20,000-acre tract of essentially unfragmented forest, the largest in the state. But the Forest Service is not advocating wilderness designation for Camp Hutchins.
In the management plan the Forest Service has proposal studying Camp Hutchins for timber production, a prospect that horrifies environmentalists. Laurel Toussaint, a conservation chair of the region's Sierra Club chapter, says logging operations in the Camp Hutchins area would threaten one of the largest remaining stands of virgin forestland in the state. Most of the Shawnee is second-growth forest replanted after extensive logging and farming during the 1800s and early 1900s. "To not protect and preserve such a forest would be a tragedy. It should not be logged now or ever," Toussaint says.
The Conservation Coalition and its supporters oppose further restrictions on ATV use and the expansion of federally designated wilderness areas. The coalition contends that the Sierra Club's tough environmental platform would depress the tourist trade and unfairly restrict the recreational rights of the region's residents.
Poshard says the Shawnee National Forest is a treasure for the entire state, and the revised management plan offers an opportunity to balance competing interests that have a stake in the forest's future. Says Poshard: "The forest can serve many uses. There's room enough for everybody including loggers, hunters, ATV users and conservationists." But as the ongoing clashes over the future of the forest illustrate, not everyone is comfortable with Poshard's middle-of-the-road approach.
Bill Steinhacher-Kemp is a staff writer for Illinois Times, an independent weekly newspaper in Springfield.
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