The carved sandstone formations, wooded hollows, wilderness and abundant wildlife found at Shawnee National Forest help define the southern Illinois landscape.
So, too, does coal. Working and abandoned mines dot the countryside. For many, the mines have provided cheap energy and good-paying jobs in the region.
For decades, the state's lone national forest - created by a presidential declaration in 1939 - has co-existed with the mining industry. But today, on an isolated tract of forestland straddling the Saline River, there's conflict.
St. Louis-based Peabody Energy Corp., one of the world's largest coal miners and the biggest owner of coal reserves in the Midwest, is proposing to acquire 384 acres of the national forest just west of the Ohio River for possible development of a surface mine. In exchange, the company is offering the federal government 831 acres in three tracts that border the forest in Pope and Jackson counties.
"We would give two acres of land contiguous to their property for every one acre that we would receive," company spokesman Meg Gallagher said. "We feel it's beneficial to the community and to the Forest Service itself."
While they would like to see the Forest Service add the tract near the Lusk Creek Wilderness area, conservation groups are urging the government to scrap the proposal. They cite the environmental consequences of the fuel from mine to power plant to disposal of coal waste.
One aspect of the proposed land exchange in particular bothers them - the discovery last summer of federally endangered gray bats and Indiana bats on the very land that the company is trying to acquire.
Peabody hired consultants to survey the land for endangered bats last summer. The findings included grey bats foraging in the bottomland near the river and a maternity colony of Indiana bats roosting in a tree in an upland area - the only known roost in the eastern section of the forest.
"They don't have the legal authority" to proceed, said Jim Bensman, an activist from Alton and head of the Sierra Club's Shawnee National Forest Committee.
LEGAL TUSSLE BREWS
Last week, the environmental groups gave 60-day notice that they intend to sue the agency for failing to formally consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is charged with ensuring the Forest Service's actions don't jeopardize the existence of endangered species or adversely affect critical habitat.
"They've skipped over some very important steps," said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "They need to consider the fact that they have two endangered bat species on this land."
Ron Scott, the Forest Service's lands program manager for the Shawnee, said a thorough environmental review will be conducted that considers the impact on the bats and habitat.
"We're many months away from any type of decision," he said. "There will be a much more robust analysis coming. We have to look at this on a parcel by parcel, resource by resource, issue by issue basis, and we're going to take as much time as we need to do it adequately."
The Forest Service website indicates a decision on the land exchange is expected by October, the month before the expiration of Peabody's option to purchase one of the properties it's proposing to trade.
But Scott said the agency has no firm deadline for making a decision, and that the time line could be extended if the Forest Service determines that a more exhaustive environmental study is required.
Exchanges involving federal land are common. A 1976 law authorizes the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to swap government lands for private property if certain conditions are met. The last transaction involving the Shawnee occurred about a decade ago, Scott said.
Peabody's effort to acquire the Shawnee tract goes back to 2005.
The company, through its Black Beauty Coal Co. subsidiary, initially offered a 481-acre tract of land adjacent to the forest in neighboring Pope County in exchange. That parcel is one of three being offered under Peabody's current proposal.
Under federal law, such exchanges are based on value of property, including coal or other minerals that lie beneath, not the number of acres involved. Any privately owned property being traded must equal at least 75 percent of the value of the federal land. The difference can be made up in cash.
Peabody's initial proposal was deemed inadequate because the parcel the company offered in return fell short of the 75-percent threshold, Scott said.
The company has since purchased a 270-acre tract of land along the Mississippi River near Grand Tower, Ill., and has an option to purchase 80 acres in Pope County, both of which would be offered to the Forest Service as part of the exchange.
The Forest Service didn't disclose appraised values for the properties involved. But Scott said the last appraisal of the federal tract was done more than two years ago and new appraisals would be completed before any exchange is approved.
If the value of the forest property is more than $150,000, the Forest Service is required to get approval of the U.S. House and Senate agriculture committees since the land for the Shawnee was acquired under the Weeks Act, a 1901 law.
The value of the land being exchanged isn't the only criteria for approval. The transaction also must be deemed in the public interest and consistent with the management plan for the forest.
The Shawnee is among the nation's most fragmented national forests; its lands scattered across the southern tip of Illinois between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The tract being pursued by Peabody in particular is isolated and gets minimal management attention.
A goal of the Forest Service is to consolidate land holdings to boost efficiencies and reduce management costs, and the proposed land exchange could help achieve that, Scott said.
That said, the Forest Service will only approve the deal if it meets requirements, including the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act - a broad law meant to ensure that all branches of government consider the environmental impact of their actions.
The analysis will consider the impact on water and wildlife and, under an executive order dating back to the Carter administration, ensure the government isn't giving up valuable floodplain without getting floodplain in return, Scott said. The review will specifically consider the potential impact of mining on the property, Scott said.
"We need to have a pretty clear understanding of what the potential effects of that might be," he said.
That endangered bats live on the land Peabody is trying to acquire, as well as the fact that the Sabine River is known habitat for the endangered pocketbook mussel, doesn't automatically disqualify the proposed exchange, Scott said. But it will weigh heavily on the environmental analysis performed as part of the exchange process.
"Certainly, the presence of three different endangered species associated with the federal parcel has required us to look at things a little harder," he said. "It has made a fundamental difference in how we need to look at the exchange proposal. It's not as black and white and linear as some may perceive."
Conservation groups say the loss of even a relatively small piece of the Shawnee comes at the worst possible time when it comes to preserving bat habitat and saving bats, which are estimated to collectively save U.S. farmers and forests billions of dollars annually by providing natural pest control.
A Jan. 17 report by Fish and Wildlife Service biologists underscores the preservation concern. It estimates that 5.7 million to 6.7 million bats across the eastern United States - including Indiana bats - have died from White-Nose Syndrome.
White-Nose Syndrome, a fungus that grows in the muzzles of bats, was first documented in a cave near Albany, N.Y., in 2006. It has since claimed about 70 percent of the Indiana bat population in the northeast. The disease has already moved into 16 states and four Canadian provinces and is expected to continue to spread.
The fungus has yet to surface in Illinois, nor has it been found among grey bats, but biologists believe it's only a matter of time.
Peabody, however, says it has no specific plan to develop a mine on the land, Gallagher said.
The company already owns or leases more than 3.6 billion tons of coal reserves in the Illinois Basin, an area that includes southern Illinois, Indiana and western Kentucky. Its land holding subsidiary routinely evaluates, buys and sells coal reserves.
"We look at properties all the time and reserves all the time and we're routinely evaluating them. There are a lot of steps in that process. You've got to look at the geology, look at the market to determine whether you're going to develop them. It's very early in that process."
Such details don't matter to Sam Stearns of Friends of Bell Smith Springs, a local conservation group.
Stearns, from nearby McCormick, Ill., has worked in a southern Illinois coal mine. He's also spent years trying to protect wildlife of the Shawnee.
"The bat is an indicator of that whole ecosystem," he said. "It's just too high of a price to pay."