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Boston University students spend spring break volunteering in Shawnee National Forest

WOLF LAKE — Eight students from Boston University are spending their spring break working in Shawnee National Forest as part of the National Forest Service’s Alternative Spring Break program.

On Tuesday afternoon, they worked with two volunteers from Sierra Club Shawnee Group and forest service employees along Snake Road to clear invasive species from LaRue Pine Hills Ecological Area. Earlier in the day, they removed at least six bags of trash from the Inspiration Point Trail.

Kelly Pearson, wilderness tech and youth hostess and volunteer coordinator, said the students pulled garlic mustard at Clear Springs Wilderness Area on Monday. On Wednesday, students will remove brush and haul gravel for the trails in Bald Knob Wilderness area, followed by map and compass training. The group will spend Thursday doing trail work at Garden of the Gods. On Friday, they will clear brush at Lincoln Memorial Park at the Ranger Station in Jonesboro.

Part of the reason the students chose this service project is that none of them had been to Illinois. They are impressed with the beauty and wildlife in Shawnee National Forest.

“The wildlife is amazing and there’s so much of it,” Kai Medina of Chelmsford, Massachusetts said.

The students saw salamanders, deer — lots of deer, according to Kai — a bald eagle and a snake. They also saw frog eggs on a pond.

“We stumbled across one [a snake] while picking up trash,” Peyton Tierney said.

“I wanted a break from the city,” Anna Baggett of Syracuse, New York, said.

“It was an area I hadn’t been in before — and it has a national forest,” Hanna Freeman of Miami said.

“I grew up doing community service and hiking in the wilderness around Portland,” Tierney said.

Part of the Alternative Spring Break program is an educational component. They students have learned about the unique biodiversity that exists in LaRue-Pine Hills and how invasive species threaten the diverse plant and animal life that lives in the area, some of which are endangered or protected species.

Medina was surprised to learn it takes two years for an orange peel or banana peel to decompose.

Jean Sellars, a restoration ecologist and member of Sierra Club, showed the students the plants they were removing, but also pointed out plants that would be helped by their efforts, such as the Spice Bush and Swamp Rose.

“LaRue-Pine Hills is certainly the most biodiverse spot in Illinois with thousands of species of plants and animals,” Sellars said. “DNR and National Forest Service are underfunded, and work like this is critical to saving species.”

Sue Hirsch of National Forest Service said the students get a snapshot of the different areas in Shawnee National Forest that the forest service manages.

“We are hitting some spots that really need work,” Hirsch said.

“More than anything, we are trying to give them an amazing experience connecting to our natural areas and culture,” Pearson said.

She added that many hands make light work, and the students have proved that both Monday and Tuesday.

Snake Road will close March 15 for the annual spring migration of reptiles and amphibians from their hibernation spots to the swampy areas of La Rue-Pine Hills.

For more information about volunteer opportunities in Shawnee National Forest, call 618-833-8576.

US greets talk of N. Korea nuke concessions with hope, skepticism

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump greeted North Korea's reported willingness to negotiate away its atomic weapons with both hope and skepticism Tuesday, insisting a potential diplomatic breakthrough be tested against the North's long history of deception and threats to target U.S. cities with nuclear missiles.

"I really believe they are sincere," Trump said at a White House news conference, sounding more optimistic than his intelligence chief, Dan Coats, who told a Senate hearing he has "very, very low confidence" that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un intends to give up his nuclear arms.

"Maybe this is a breakthrough. I seriously doubt it," Coats said.

A senior South Korean presidential adviser said Tuesday that Kim expressed a willingness to discuss nuclear disarmament and halt nuclear and missile tests during future talks with the United States. The North didn't confirm those concessions, which would amount to a dramatic about-face for a nation that has frequently vowed to preserve its nuclear arsenal at any cost.

Chung Eui-yong, the South Korean official who spoke after participating in talks with Kim in Pyongyang, also said the North Korean dictator had agreed to meet with South Korea's president at a border village in late April.

Trump, who last fall told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson he was "wasting his time" trying to talk with the North, tweeted Tuesday that "possible progress" had been made in North Korea's capital and that all sides were making serious efforts. He added: "May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!"

Later, in an Oval Office photo session with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, Trump said the North Koreans "seem to be acting positively," but that the prospects will be clearer when diplomacy moves to the next stage.

"We have come certainly a long way, at least rhetorically, with North Korea," Trump said. Of the possibility for peacefully resolving the nations' deep differences, he said: "It'd be a great thing for the world, would be a great for North Korea, it would be a great thing for the peninsula. But we'll see what happens."

In Chung's account, Kim indicated he would not need to keep nuclear weapons if military threats against North Korea were removed and his nation received a credible security guarantee. That suggests the possibility Kim will insist in any deal that the U.S. withdraw its nearly 28,000 troops from South Korea. The North sees those forces and their periodic exercises with South Korean troops as a threat to invade the North.

The White House issued a brief statement from Vice President Mike Pence suggesting nothing has changed in that area. A U.S. official said there were no plans to scrap the war games envisioned for next month.

"All options are on the table, and our posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible, verifiable and concrete steps toward denuclearization," Pence said.

Separately, highlighting a less-discussed dimension of the standoff with North Korea, the Pentagon's military intelligence chief told a Senate hearing that Kim has taken a "far different" approach to military preparedness than his father, Kim Jong Il, by imposing greater rigor and discipline in army training. Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, called it a "big change" and implied the improvements should be taken into account in considering the prospect of war on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea's willingness to hold a "candid dialogue" with the United States to discuss denuclearization and establish diplomatic relations follows a year of increased fears of war, with Kim and Trump exchanging fiery rhetoric and crude insults over Kim's barrage of weapons tests. The Trump administration also pushed through some of the harshest economic sanctions any country has ever faced.

Trump said Kim's apparent willingness to negotiate is likely due to the sanctions, and China's role in applying them.

Still, there is wide skepticism that Tuesday's developments will bring genuine peace between the Koreas, which have a long history of failing to follow through with major rapprochement agreements. The United States has made it clear it doesn't want empty talks with North Korea and that all options, including military measures, are in play until the North actually surrenders its nuclear weapons, believed to number around 30.

"We have seen nothing to indicate ... that he would be willing to give up those weapons," Coats said.

Chung said the two Koreas would hold a summit at a South Korea-controlled facility. He said Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will establish a "hotline" communication channel to lower military tensions, and would speak together before the get-together.

It would be the third such summit since the Koreas' 1945 division. Kim Jong Il met liberal South Korean presidents in Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007. They resulted in a series of cooperative projects that were scuttled during subsequent conservative administrations in South Korea.

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WDBX station manager calls its quits, citing 'abusive, bullying treatment' by board of directors

CARBONDALE — The manager of Carbondale’s community radio station told The Southern on Tuesday he has officially quit his job, following months of turmoil with the station's board of directors.

Dave Armstrong took over as the station manager of WDBX 91.1 FM in late 2012. He had been a volunteer with the organization since 2001.

“This has not been an easy choice to make,” Armstrong said in a post on the WDBX Facebook page. “Although I had a sincere desire to stay; the abusive, bullying treatment I have received from my bosses has made it impossible to perform my job — it seems certain to me that this is their intent.”

WDBX is run by Heterodyne Broadcasting Company, which is a not-for-profit company doing business as WDBX.

Armstrong told The Southern that he felt he was “forced out” because he and others wanted to bring community radio back in the control of the community. Additionally, he said he wanted to provide accountability to the community.

According to the station’s website, WDBX is governed by a seven-member advisory board, two of which are permanent members of Heterodyne, and five of which are elected or appointed for a two-year term at the discretion of the Heterodyne Broadcasting Company Board.

The two permanent members are Gene Turk and Tom Egert, who also make up the board of directors — Armstrong's now former bosses. 

In the early days of the organization, Armstrong said the station used to hold elections to make up its board of directors, which were decided by its donors.

Sometime later, he said these elections were done away with and the advisory board was created by appointment only. Back in December, Armstrong and members of the advisory board penned a letter to the public calling for the resignation of the two permanent members.

In the open letter, the authors suggest that once the board resigns, that a committee convene to appoint a new seven-member governing board.

"A timeline of one week was set to begin this process — to have a meaningful meeting with this goal in mind, and to start the difficult work necessary to move forward," the open letter, published in December 2017, reads. "It was also made clear that after that week, a lack of meaningful engagement from the Board members would result in our public expression of those demands, and a call for the resignation of all current Heterodyne Board members."

The letter was signed by Armstrong and five advisory board members, 11 volunteers, one underwriter/volunteer and one listener-supporter.

Armstrong said the advisory board never felt like it had any real power to make decisions and the permanent members held the most weight.

“I feel strongly that any organization that solicits information from the community has to be held accountable by the community,” Armstrong said. “I believe our volunteers and supporters vastly support full elections across the board. I don’t think it is unreasonable to be suspicious of an organization that so adamantly discourages accountability to the community and democracy.”

Egert said he didn't believe the reason behind Armstrong's quitting had anything to do with the turmoil between the manager and the board of directors. 

"I think there are some things he wanted to do with his life," he said. "We are fine and will be accepting applications for new people."

He said those interested in the position can send resumes to 

Armstrong said he is willing to work with the station to ensure a smooth transition, but he felt he couldn’t continue to do his job at the station.

“I don’t want to see community radio harmed and I hope there is a day I can be back in the studio,” he said. “My hands were chained to the point that I couldn’t do basic job functions.”

Turk said he wishes Armstrong well and that he was generous for sticking around the organization while it finds its next manager. 

"I think we’ll be OK," he said. "We already had some people who said they would step up and make things work in the meantime on an interim basis."

He said he met with Armstrong for about an hour Tuesday about moving forward. 

Armstrong said he is a true believer in community radio, and many of the problems around local communities and the nation can be solved by listening and talking to one another. He said community radio is a place where people talk, ideas are exchanged, and people hear one another.

“I am true believer in community radio,” he said. “I believe community radio challenges many of the problems we have in the world today and can find solutions to lots of them.”

WDBX is run by about 100 volunteers — excluding Armstrong, who was its only paid staff member. The station has an operating budget of $100,000, about two-thirds of which comes from community donations and the other one-third from underwriters and sponsorships.

Simon Poll
Simon Poll: Illinois voters not happy with the direction state is headed; not much influenced by recent tax cuts

Illinois voters are not pleased about the overall direction of the state and nation, but they are much happier with the direction of their own local town or city, according to a news release from the Southern Illinois University Carbondale Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

Also, voters are not much impressed with the recent federal tax cuts and do not plan to let them influence their voting decisions.

Those are major conclusions of a recent poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. The Simon Poll was based on a statewide sample of 1,001 registered voters conducted Feb. 19 to 25. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percent.

The respondents were asked, “generally speaking, do you think things in our country are going in the right direction, or are they off track and heading in the wrong direction?” A total of 27 percent chose right track, while a total of 64 percent chose wrong direction, with 9 percent saying they don’t know.

Voters were then asked the same question about the state of Illinois, and 84 percent chose the off track and heading in the wrong direction. Only 9 percent chose the right direction option.

“Voters have been more negative about the state of Illinois than the rest of the country since the inception of our poll in 2008,” said Charlie Leonard, a visiting professor with the institute and one of the designers of the poll. “It is notable that the state ratings are still 20 percentage points more negative than the national ratings and there is an 18 percent gap between Illinois and the nation on the ‘right direction’ option.”

Things were more positive when the same question was asked at the local level regarding the city or area in which a person lived. There, over a majority, 54 percent chose the right direction, while 37 percent chose the wrong direction, with 10 percent saying they didn't know.

The poll also asked whether Illinois voters approved or disapproved of the 2017 tax cut passed by the Republican-controlled Congress and signed by President Trump. Thirty-four percent said they supported the tax cut, with 17 percent saying they strongly supported it and 17 percent saying they somewhat supported the cut.

Well over a majority, 53 percent of Illinois voters surveyed, said they opposed the tax cut, with 15 percent strongly opposed and 38 percent somewhat opposed; 2 percent said “neither.” The state is deeply polarized on this issue, with 80 percent of Democrats opposed while 75 percent of Republicans were in support of the tax cuts. Independents were in the middle, with 36 percent who supported and 48 percent who opposed the cuts.

Chicago voters opposed the tax cuts: 63 percent were opposed and 28 percent supported. Downstate voters were more closely divided over the tax cuts, with 40 percent who supported and 41 percent who opposed. Thirty-three percent of suburban Chicago and collar county voters supported and 55 percent opposed the tax cuts.

Illinois voters were asked whether the tax cuts would make them more or less likely to vote for Republican congressional candidates in November, and 33 percent of the respondents said the tax cuts would make them more likely to vote Republican in the fall, while 56 percent said they were less likely, and 6 percent choosing neither.

Eighty-five percent of Democrats said less likely; 80 percent of Republicans said more likely, while 29 percent of Independents said more likely and 49 percent said less likely.

Downstate voters chose more likely over less likely by a margin of 48 percent to 42 percent. Chicago voters chose less likely by 70 percent to 19 percent. Suburban Chicago and the collar counties voters chose less likely over more likely, 58 percent to 31 percent.

The question of which party “best represents your interest in the U.S. Congress” produced a solid advantage for the Democrats. Forty-three percent of the respondents overall chose the Democrats; 28 percent chose the Republicans; 2 percent chose the Green Party; 6 percent the Libertarians; 12 percent chose some other party.

Forty percent of downstate respondents chose the Republicans, and 31 percent chose the Democrats, while 2 percent chose the Greens and 7 percent the Libertarians. In Chicago, 55 percent favored the Democrats and 15 percent favored the Republicans, 6 percent took the Libertarians and 3 percent the Greens. In suburban and collar counties, 45 percent chose the Democrats and 25 percent the Republicans, while 2 percent chose the Greens and 5 percent the Libertarians.

The poll then turned to two policy issues that are on the political agenda in Illinois. The first question asked whether the voters favored or opposed “the legalization of recreational marijuana if it is taxed and regulated like alcohol?”

Two-thirds of Illinois voters said they favored this measure compared to nearly one-third who opposed. Those favoring were 46 percent who strongly favored and 20 percent who favored legalization compared to 24 percent who strongly opposed and 8 percent who opposed and 3 percent who were unsure.

Downstate voters favored legalization by a 58 percent to 40 percent opposed; 77 percent in Chicago favored and 22 percent in Chicago opposed; in suburban Chicago and the collar counties, 66 percent favored and 31 percent opposed. Democrats favored marijuana legalization by 78 percent to 20 percent; Republicans were evenly divided at 49 percent favor and 49 percent opposed and Independents favored by 62 percent to 36 percent.

The second question was whether Illinois should require lawmakers to wait at least a year before registering as a lobbyist. An overwhelming 85 percent supported this proposal while only 10 percent opposed and 5 percent were unsure. The measure was favored by similar margins by identifiers with both parties and independents and by all three major regions of the state.