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One of the most rewarding experiences in our lives was playing a part in protecting the Shawnee National Forest from the depredations of the U.S. Forest Service and the timber industry.

A few decades ago, this government agency set its sights on the Shawnee and began implementing a program of detrimental, money-losing timber sales on our little National Forest. Accomplices in the SIUC Department of Forestry and sycophants in “Big Green” environmental organizations joined the effort to cut as many trees as they could as fast as possible on public land. It was only through the efforts of a handful (later busloads) of dedicated grassroots forest defenders that these destructive plans were curtailed for at least a while.

The Forest Service was motivated by archaic laws which reward them for losing money selling our trees; the timber industry was motivated by an opportunity to acquire low cost lumber and pulp; the Forestry Department coveted lucrative grants from both government and industry; and the Big Green “environmentalists” were more concerned about collaborating with the government than with protecting the forest.

One high-ranking Shawnee Forest Service official, after mapping all the most valuable timber on the Shawnee, immediately went to work for an out-of-state logging company which coveted the corporate welfare that the government would provide. Academicians in industrial forestry schools accepted large grants from the Forest Service and cranked out dubious research, which encouraged the despicable practice of clear cutting on the thin soil of our steep hillsides. Timber industry spokespeople touted the prospect of numerous local jobs which never materialized. Big Green groups helped the Forest Service distort facts and twist logic in order to justify logging tens of thousands of acres of native hardwoods, along with tens of thousands more acres of recovering mixed pine/hardwood forest.

Finally, local forest lovers saw this scheme for the scam it was and mounted resistance. Groups formed such as ACE, RACE, Heartwood, and Friends of Bell Smith Springs. With nothing to go on but an ability to understand science and a love of the forest, these organizations raised awareness of the problem and fought it on the ground, in the media, and ultimately in Federal Court. Our science kicked pseudoscientific butts.

At an active logging operation in the Bell Smith Springs watershed, we were personally present to witness our esteemed pro bono attorney, Tom Buchele, hand the Forest Service an injunction from federal court which, ultimately stopped logging on the Shawnee for 18 years. Eventually, however, the Forest Service convinced a federal judge that they deserved another chance at managing our forest. Regrettably but predictably, the Forest Service immediately fell back into its previous pattern of managing our forest with priorities of bloating its own budget and providing corporate welfare to industry at the expense of the land which we still love.

During the years that logging was stopped, the Forest Service and interrelated government agencies engaged in a public disinformation campaign. They convinced many citizens and some of the aforementioned Big Greens that not only should most of the Shawnee be logged, it should also be burned and sprayed with various poisonous chemicals. This brought them additional allies: the prescribed burn industry and the chemical industry.

The problem for these people who seek private profit from our public lands is that their prescriptions do not work. One hard-fought battle in the Shawnee was the Fairview Timber Sale, which was cut in 1991. Visits back to that area in recent years reveal that none of the Forest Service’s goals were met. The land was poorer rather than richer for all the tax dollars which were squandered on that debacle.

The logging done at Bell Smith Springs prior to the court injunction was purportedly for the purpose of eliminating pines and accomplishing “ecological restoration” for our native hardwoods. Instead, those logging sites are now dense with new pine saplings and a host of invasive exotic species. This is the very opposite of what experts predicted would occur.

Now that logging has resumed on the Shawnee, similar failed results can be seen.

Fortunately in the past few years, grassroots environmental protection groups have formed to protect public land. Groups like SNAG (Shawnee Natural Area Guardians), SAFE (Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing our Environment), and especially Shawnee Forest Defense! have joined older groups in stepping up to challenge these most recent threats to the places we love. For people who share this love of our local precious jewel, the Shawnee National Forest, now is the time to become involved and take action.

On Oct. 11-14, Shawnee Forest Defense! and others are sponsoring “The Resurgence: 2019 North American Forest and Climate Movement Convergence” at Touch of Nature in Carbondale.

This event is not just significant for protecting our Shawnee National Forest. It has implications for the future of forests on public land across the country. We urge anyone who loves the land and cares about its future to attend and get involved.

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Sam Stearns is part of the Friends of Bell Smith Springs. Joe Glisson, Ph.D., is part of the Regional Association of Concerned Environmentalists.

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