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Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: 'Shawnee Showdown: Keep the Forest Standing' is time well spent

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Sitting in the dark at Morris Library’s John C. Guyon Auditorium last week, I was transported back to the 1990s by “Shawnee Showdown: Keep the Forest Standing.”

Cade Bursell, a professor in the School of Media Arts, captured the feel and flavor of the era and the environmental movement in Southern Illinois from 1991-93. The hour-long documentary focuses on the protests and court battles to stop clear-cutting in the Shawnee National Forest, with particular attention to the Fairview area.

Bursell seamlessly blends gorgeous cinematography, news footage from the era and newspaper clippings to tell a story that is as entertaining as it is informative. And, she does a magnificent job of staying out of the way, allowing the activists to tell their own stories.

The most effective took Bursell employs is before and active footage involving troops who were on the front lines of this environmental fight. People like John Wallace, Mark Donham, Jan Wilder-Thomas, Deb Boutan, Rene Cook, Sam Stearns and others who were engaged in the actual protests and protracted court battles are shown in 1990s news footage, presenting the case against clear-cutting.

Fast forward 30 years and Bursell places these same people into the forest where they reminisce about those days of camping in the woods, confronting police and piecing together a legal strategy that ultimately resulted in a 17-year moratorium on logging.

The technique exposes the still simmering passion of the environmentalists. At the same time, the viewer is made privy to the wisdom and insights gleaned in the intervening 30 years. Bursell’s story-telling reveals the character of the activists.

The viewer learns to see Wallace, Boutan, Donham et al, as people, not just players in this eco-political drama. Perhaps the most striking takeaway is that none of the featured players second guess their actions.

In fact, all are still outspoken advocates for the forest. Following the showing of the documentary, they expressed their continued concerns about logging operations currently being conducted in the Shawnee National Forest.

However, looking through the trees to see the forest, the underlying story here is the power of the people. It may seem as if the federal government holds all the cards – it has the inertia of a massive bureaucracy, legions of lawyers and political clout on its side.

Yet, the history of Southern Illinois, not to mention the Shawnee, was changed by a handful of citizens who were convinced they held the moral high ground and who refused to be cowed into submission.

It wasn’t easy. Some endured physical hardships. Others were willing to be arrested for their beliefs. But, in the end, they persevered and used the law, invoking the Migratory Bird Act, to halt the logging. Covering all the bases, they also used the research of ornithologist Jean Graber, to back up their claims.

Finally, it’s important to bear in mind that “Shawnee Showdown: Keep the Forest Standing” is more than a history lesson. It’s an outline, it’s a primer and it remains relevant in today’s world.

As Bursell said in a press release issued by SIU, the film aims to bring about collective thinking “about public land use given the context of climate change and the most recent research in forest ecology.”

Mission accomplished.

If you have a chance, view the documentary. It’s time well spent. The film is being shown at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 18 at the Varsity Theater in Carbondale. There is no admission charge. 

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les@winkelerswingsandwildlife.com, on Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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