There was a time Sam Stearns took Bell Smith Springs for granted.
Not that he didn't love the cool, clean spring pools or the majestic sandstone cliffs or the flora and fauna that make up one of the Shawnee National Forest's multifaceted gems.
No, Stearns, whose earliest memories are of catching tadpoles in those pools, just assumed that if Southern Illinois held such a jewel then the world's most precious stones must be elsewhere.
"I thought other places had to be more spectacular than this, but I traveled the world and I never found anywhere I liked better than this place," Stearns, who lives near Bell Smith Springs, said. "It's only gotten better and better my entire life. It's still relatively untouched."
But more than two decades ago, when he realized planned timber sales threatened to manhandle the stomping grounds of his youth, Stearns learned just how much the forest meant to him.
"The threat of this place being impacted got me into environmental activism," Stearns, 56, said. "I got a map from the (U.S.) Forest Service and walked a couple of the timber sales. One was on a steep hillside that led into this spectacular recreation area. The soil was highly erodible, silt would go into the spring pools and the timber wasn't worth anything. It didn't make any sense to me."
And neither did the answers provided by the forest service in response to his questions.
"I called a ranger and he told me the timber would be used for mine props. It just didn't make any sense to me," he said. "I wanted him to change his mind but he told me it was a done deal."
Always an opportunity
Stearns soon hooked up with activist and then-owner of the Pomona General Store, Joe Glisson, who had a long history of fighting for the environment.
"Joe told me there was always opportunity to provide input, that there was recourse. He said it wasn't a done deal, that I'd been lied to," Stearns said.
Stearns and other activists successfully stopped those timber sales.
"I learned a lot. I learned I couldn't believe the studies about the effects of clear cutting because they were financed by the timber industry. I learned I couldn't always trust the forest service to protect this area and I learned that citizens like Joe Glisson and myself can have an impact on public land management. I learned just enough to make me dangerous," the former forestry student said with a laugh.
Since then, Stearns has been active in protecting the forest. He's fought proposals, policies and procedures that he argued would bring harm to the natural areas and/or their inhabitants, sometimes effecting change in the way the forest service does business on a national level.
"If not for Sam Stearns, they would have already cut Bell Smith Springs," Glisson, now an activist in Florida, said. "He is looking out for the Shawnee - he is committed and inspiring. Sam Stearns is one of the most courageous and uncompromising people I've ever known."
While Stearns often finds himself opposing forest service policies, which he said are "sometimes harmless, sometimes beneficial and sometimes driven not by what's good for the forest but what's good for the forest service budget," he holds a longtime respect for those wearing the distinctive green uniforms of the service.
"When I was just a kid camping here all the time, I would see the green trucks and the guys in green uniforms. They were my heroes. As far as I was concerned, they were here to protect this place and protect me," he said.
Shawnee National Forest Supervisor Allen Nicholas said Stearns is a sincere advocate for the natural resources of the forest.
"His diligence in keeping issues of concern in the forefront has contributed to decisions that have begun to mitigate effects on resources within the Shawnee," Nicholas said.
Stearns, who works at a rubber recycler in Eldorado, devotes about 30 hours each week to the Shawnee.
He educates the public on issues concerning the forest and the environment. His friend, Duane Short, a Brookport native who now heads a wild species program in Laramie, Wyo., said Stearns is an "encyclopedia of Shawnee National Forest history."
"He is a capable advocate for the environment and a good friend. "Before I knew him and only knew of him, I thought, ‘This Sam guy is kind of scary.' He had that reputation," Short said. "I smile when I think about some of the things said about him by those who don't see eye to eye with him because he's such a great guy and a great family man."
Stearns, whose wife, Geneil, is a seventh-grade science teacher in Harrisburg, can often be found leading groups of students on the forest trails, hoping to inspire a love of the land in the young.
"I try not to be preachy, but I think by sharing this place with other people, we are broadening the base of people who want to protect it. My wife loves this place, too, and some of her students will be the very people who will take over my role in protecting this place for the future," he said.
Stearns said he plans to continue advocating for the forest.
"In the 1970s, they did a natural area inventory. There were no virgin lands in the entire state and only seven one-hundredths of 1 percent of the land was in a nearly natural state. We have only such a tiny remnant of what our native forest was. The rest has been developed residentially or commercially or logged," he said.
"The best use of this place is as an outdoor classroom and recreational area. It's a living laboratory and a place for spiritual rejuvenation. It has a much higher value for those purposes than it could ever have as pulp paper or lumber."