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CARBONDALE, Ill. — For the first time in nearly three decades, the Shawnee National Forest has proposed a commercial timber harvest of mostly native oaks and hickories on 485 acres in rural Jackson County, on the south side of Kinkaid Lake.

Environmental activists, whose high-profile fight against logging in the 1990s led to a 17-year moratorium on cutting, are once again raising alarms.

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 Forest Service says timber sales are not the primarily objective of the plan; instead, the goal is ecological restoration.

“Restoration is needed to improve forest health and sustainability of the oak-hickory ecosystems, improve wildlife habitat, and reduce/control non-native species,” the Forest Service wrote in a draft environmental assessment outlining the scope of the project.

Lisa Helmig, acting forest supervisor with the Shawnee National Forest, said the plan is rooted in the best available science about how to maintain the keystone oak ecosystem that is native to the Shawnee foothills, about 85 miles southeast of St. Louis.

“The oak ecosystem has been in place here in the central hardwood region for 5,000 years,” she said. But Helmig said the ecosystem is at risk due to a lack of natural or man-made disturbances, such as fire, storms and, yes, even logging. Without these disturbances, nonnative, shade-tolerant sugar maple and beech trees sprout up and fill in the forest’s mid-story, she said.

EXCHANGE: Activists fight Shawnee forest timber sales

In this Aug. 2019 photo, Sam Stearns, left, and John Wallace examine a tree in the Shawnee National Forest. For the first time in nearly three decades, the Shawnee National Forest has proposed a commercial timber harvest of mostly native oaks and hickories on 485 acres in rural Jackson County, on the south side of Kinkaid Lake. (Molly Parker/The Southern Illinoisan via AP)

That changes the dynamics of the understory because oak ecosystems generally allow for more light to shine through. And that light, she said, allows for the growth of native flowers, herbs and shrubs. The Forest Service anticipates this would attract a variety of pollinators, including insects and animals. It should also result in a shift in bird species using the area, such as the red-headed woodpecker and yellow breasted chat, both of which thrive in a younger forest habitat.

“You really can’t ignore that the successional change is happening, and if there isn’t some active management to start reversing it, we’re going to see some consequences,” Helmig said. The unchecked proliferation of sugar maples and beeches creates a different ecosystem, she said. “It’s a completely different suite of species, and there’s ecosystem consequences to that in terms of biodiversity and productivity in the forest,” she said.

The Forest Service plan calls for allowing a commercial timber harvest on 485 acres of the project’s 560-acre span. Most of what is proposed for shelterwood logging is hardwood forest, but the project also includes some pine. The commercial logger would only be able to harvest the trees marked with paint for cutting, Helmig said. These trees would be selected based on a plan prescribed by a silviculturist, which is a certified tree and forest management expert.

The pilot project further calls for the use of herbicides to selectively manage nonnative invasive species for stand improvement on the pilot project site, and for pollinator seeding of native species across 46 acres.

To forgo these steps, according to Helmig, “will have consequences on animals, plants, birds, insects and pollinators — the biological web.”

But critics argue that past restoration and timber management projects undertaken by the Shawnee National Forest haven’t resulted in consistent success in restoring oak ecosystems.

The idea that logging as proposed by the Shawnee National Forest is done for forest health is a “myth,” wrote John Wallace, of Simpson, Illinois, in an objection letter on behalf of Shawnee Forest Defense!, a group of area concerned citizens who have come together in opposition of Shawnee logging projects.

They point to the state of sites that were previously commercially logged to make their case.

His group maintains that the project, if undertaken, will reduce oak and hickory trees that may not be replaced, and introduce a flush of undesirable vegetative growth and nonnative invasive plant species. This will require more expensive management activities, such as prescribed fire, which the group says emits unnecessary carbon into the air, and related herbicide applications.

“To pretend that by logging, undesirable and unhealthy trees are magically plucked from the forest, restoring resilience to the forest, with minimal consequences, is frankly more than misleading,” said the letter, signed by seven people.

An earlier fight

It was the activism of Wallace and others that ultimately put a 17-year halt to logging in the Shawnee National Forest.

In the summer of 1990, Wallace was among dozens of activists who descended on rural Jackson County near the Fairview Christian Church, which bordered a planned logging site.

They were there to protest the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to allow the East Perry Lumber Co., of Frohna, Missouri, to begin logging operations. At the time, a spokesman for the Forest Service told the Chicago Tribune that cutting would promote regeneration of young oak and hickories, and that timber sales helped the local economy and governmental coffers, and followed longstanding management practices.

The 141-acre logging site represented only a small fraction of the Shawnee’s 260,000 acres, which stretch from the Mississippi to the Ohio across Southern Illinois. But the activists felt like it represented a broader fight about the cumulative effects of poor management practices.

Over the course of 79 days, a battle raged on this normally serene sliver of Southern Illinois. Two activists buried themselves up to their necks at the entrance to an access road. Others built platforms near the tops of trees and promised to occupy them to prevent them from being cut.

One activist locked his neck to a logging skidder with a bicycle lock.

That man was Wallace. It was 29 years ago this month, and Wallace’s 31st birthday, when law enforcement removed the bike lock by blowtorch. Logging commenced the next day, but then was brought to a halt as an attorney working on their behalf won a temporary stay. A year later, the stay was rescinded and the property was logged. But it would be among the last hardwood timber harvests in the Shawnee for years. In 1996, the result of a lawsuit brought by environmentalists, Judge Phil Gilbert granted an injunction that prohibited logging and oil and gas drilling. It remained in effect until 2013. That year, Gilbert agreed that the Forest Service had satisfactorily addressed concerns in its 2006 management plan.

Since then, the Shawnee National Forest has sold the equivalent of 35 million board feet of timber. Sales increased significantly in 2018 and 2019 compared to the prior six years. Still, Helmig said the amount sold this year represented only 1% of the total sold across the Eastern district, which contains 14 national forests.

Wallace says that time has proven the protesters were right. In late August, he and Sam Stearns, of Friends of Bell Smith Springs, led a reporter through that Fairview site. The road was eroded. The hike was made difficult from a web of downed trees, vines and shrubbery that were twisted into a mess during the 2009 derecho, a widespread and fast-moving straight-line windstorm.

But reaching the former cutting site about a half mile from the road, Wallace grew frustrated. He’d been here before, but it irritates him every time he sees it. The trees that have grown up to replace the harvested oaks and hickories are mostly 28-year-old stands of “undesirable” beeches and maples.

“When you think about how many oaks were here, it’s heart-wrenching,” Wallace said.

“Had they not cut the oaks, we’d have oaks here,” Stearns added.