In 1996, Federal Judge J. Phil Gilbert put a permanent injunction into place against the U.S. Forest Service, disallowing further resource extraction practices on the Shawnee National Forest. He found the Forest Plan in place to be inadequate to protect the overall ecological forest health. To lift the injunction and continue any such practices, the Forest Service was required to produce a revised plan addressing several issues as set forth by Judge Gilbert.
In 2006, the Forest Service issued a new Forest Plan which allowed tens of thousands of acres of new logging, as well as oil and gas drilling on most of the Shawnee. On Feb. 16, 2012, Judge Gilbert heard arguments presented by the Forest Service as defendant and the Regional Association of Concerned Environmentalists together with the Audubon Council of Illinois as plaintiffs. The Forest Service wants the injunction lifted and claims they have complied with the judge’s orders.
Attorney Tom Buchele, representing RACE and ACI, presented compelling arguments opposing lifting the injunction at the present time. He stated that although a revised plan has been produced, it does not address the issues originally put forth by Judge Gilbert and does not protect the overall ecological health of the Shawnee.
He also pointed out the continued improvement of forest habitat health, which has resulted in population growth of threatened and endangered species since extraction practices have been halted for the past 16 years.
The Forest Service countered this by stating that even though this may be true, improvements were because of their management practices before the injunction. Also, the Forest Service believes some habitat is degrading without their management practices, resulting in the predominant oak and hickory being replaced by beech and maple. Both of these responses are truly preposterous!
The Forest Service saying their past practices resulted in improved habitats is like the fox saying he is responsible for an increased number of chickens in the hen house after he hasn’t been able to enter for a while.
The Forest Service has long used the fallacious argument of the desired oak/hickory forests succeeding to beech/maple deserts to push through their destructive timber harvests. They tell the public forests must be cut for the oak and hickory to come back. First, if there are areas where this succession is taking place, I believe, as do many others knowledgeable about forest ecosystems, it is a direct result of the continuing disturbance of the forest caused by logging, burning, grazing, farming and development over the past 200 years.
Illinois contains only a small fraction, far less than 1 percent, of its original virgin forest. In these few remaining areas that have not been logged, you do not see beech and maple taking over. In addition, if you visit any of the areas logged in the last 30 years, you do not see a proliferation of oak and hickory, as the Forest Service promised would happen as a result of allowing commercial logging to take place.
I am not aware of any monitoring processes in place by the Forest Service that would validate their conclusion. Many ask the question, if you want to reduce the number of beech and maple trees, why not cut those species? Could it be that beech and maple are not desirable for wood production?
When the Forest Service was clear-cutting large tracts of forests during the 1980s, many local people became alarmed and spoke up. Challenged in court, the Forest Service stopped clear-cutting because the practice was deemed destructive to the forest ecosystem. Their subsequent plans for timber sales, group selection (basically patch clear cutting), gap phase dynamics (removing all large oaks and hickories) and finally ecological restoration (removal of pines at Bell Smith Springs, originally planted in rows after clear cutting oaks and hickories in the early 1900s) were all found destructive, as well. This final court challenge led to the 1996 injunction.
It seems obvious the Forest Service was hoping enough time had passed, the injunction would be lifted, and they could go on with business as usual without changing their way of doing things. Judge Gilbert is currently reviewing the information presented to him at the hearing and will be making a decision soon.
Another important issue we must consider is the possibility of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, which could take place in the Shawnee if the injunction is lifted. This unconventional, high-volume practice of oil and gas drilling has caused horrendous damage to public and private lands in other states, although touted as safe. Information is available at dontfractureillinois.org.
Our remaining, recovering forests are at stake. Even though fragmented, these last remnants of wild Illinois are all we have left. Many people have worked tirelessly and sacrificed much to help preserve them. I urge everyone to learn more about the issue and let your voice be heard. It is time to speak up once again.
CORINA LANG of Cobden is a council member and member of the Heartwood Board of Regional Association of Concerned Environmentalists.