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Thirty years later, history is repeating itself in the Shawnee National Forest.

In the early 1990s, the United States Forest Service awarded logging contracts for portions of the Shawnee. A small portion of the forest was logged before a grassroots movement of local environmentalists stopped the timber harvest with protests on the ground and successful actions in federal court.

Fast forward to 2019.

Once again, the U.S. Forest Service is planning to log a portion of the Shawnee. The plan, which is awaiting final approval by the U.S. Forest Service’s Eastern Region regional office in Milwaukee, is known as the Waterfall Stewardship Pilot Project.

The proposed harvest would take place in Jackson County on 485 acres south of Kinkaid Lake.

The battle lines are much the same as they were in the 1990s.

The Forest Service claims the logging is part of an ecological restoration effort, that the logging will improve the health of the oak-hickory forest. Lisa Helmig, acting forest supervisor, said the forest is suffering from the lack of disturbance, either man-made or natural.

Because there has been no disturbance, shade tolerant species like beech and maple have filled the midstory, depriving the forest floor of light and choking out young oak and hickory.

Those opposed to the timber sale say the biology is faulty. The environmental community states the Forest Service made essentially the same promises 30 years ago, and the results are don’t bear out the claims.

The environmental community claims the Forest Service can’t be trusted.

There is some validity to that claim. It’s not that the Forest Service’s science is faulty — we’re not in a position to make that statement. It’s that areas previously “restored” don’t exactly fit the description of a healthy oak-hickory forest.

Again, it’s not necessarily that the science is flawed. For a variety of reasons, including lack of funding, areas of the forest haven’t rebounded as promised. Helmig, who was not part of the Forest Service at the time, said her “gut reaction” is that secondary and tertiary phases of a multi-step treatment plan were never implemented.

That is a reasonable assumption.

And, frankly the Forest Service didn’t help its credibility earlier this summer when a Southern Illinois reporter was removed from an objection resolution meeting. Babete Anderson, the U.S. Forest Service’s national press officer, later stated the reporter should have been allowed to attend, but the initial action casts doubt upon the agency’s transparency.

But, there is more to the story.

The Forest Service plans to complement the logging with prescribed burns and the use of herbicides to control, and hopefully, eliminate invasive species.

That portion of the plan is also opposed by the environmental community.

In the final analysis, it seems there should be some middle ground.

Given the size of the forest, 265,000 acres, and the size of the proposed timber sale, less than 500 acres, it’s difficult to make a case for the urgency of this “restoration” project.

The fragmented nature of the forest would appear to lend itself to less invasive procedures. The Trail of Tears State Forest is a living laboratory of various ways to manage forests.

And, local agencies are currently implementing the “Let the Sun Shine In” approach to promoting oak and hickory growth. The program does involve cutting trees, but those are primarily trees in the midstory.

The process can be implemented without widespread degradation of the landscape. An area of Giant City State Park, located near Devils Standtable Trail, is currently undergoing that treatment.

The downed trees will later serve as fuel for controlled burns in an effort to restore grasses and sedges while eliminating invasive species.

Adopting such a plan would require good faith compromise from both sides. And, it would buy some time as data is collected and results monitored.

— Alee Quick recused herself from this editorial

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