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Balancing act on the Shawnee.

Once-blighted land now largely renewed, this Illinois forest has a new mandate for more sensitive management.

Shawnee National Forest--nearly 270,000 acres of flatland prairie, rolling bluegreen hills, and sandstone bluffs--marks the nubby fingers of southern Illinois like a fat jade ring. The forest is as diverse as the uses included in a new Forest Service management plan that protects endangered species, provides a home for migratory songbirds, and restores the Shawnee's original ecosystem while allowing for some commercial use.

Shawnee's diverse and scenic regions, bounded by the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and by east-west Illinois Highway 13, were gathered under the umbrella of "national forest" more than 50 years ago. Groups such as the Izaak Walton League were clamoring for more forestland in the state, and Illinois' southern tip was a candidate. Trees on the once-densely carpeted land had been wantonly chopped for more than a century; land suitable only for tree crops had been cleared for generally unsuccessful farming.

The economy in the region made land cheap and easy for the government to buy. Many farms had been abandoned or were failing badly. Southern Illinois, which had been heavily mined for coal from just after the turn of the century until the mid-1920s, suffered when consumers turned to other forms of power. Proponents of a national forest for Illinois theorized that management of land, water, and wildlife could improve economic conditions.

The tract chosen was a wooded glacial moraine first inhabited by Indians about 11,000 years ago, more recently by the hunting Shawnee tribe, and, in the late 18th century, by European settlers. It was used largely for row-crop farming and fruit growing, albeit unsuccessfully, and less than half was covered by forest, mainly mixed hardwoods. By the time the national-forest plans were underway, the trees were being cut only for making railroad ties, fruit and vegetable boxes, and farm posts, none of it very profitable. Fields and woodlots were burned annually, encouraging soil erosion.

In 1931, Illinois passed legislation that virtually invited the federal government to establish a national forest in the area. Funds were not immediately available, but a barrage of pleas from individuals and civic groups over the next two years caught the government's attention. Shawnee would be among the first national forests to be created under a $20-million federal appropriation.

Within a year of the establishment of "purchase units" to enable the federal government to buy land, the ground was sprouting telephone poles and fire towers, and roads and bridges were under construction. Trees were replanted in clearcut areas, and picnic grounds and campgrounds appeared. A 6,000-acre agricultural center, managed by the University of Illinois, taught farmers to take better care of their land.

The land, which sold for the rock-bottom price of $1 to $3 an acre, was proclaimed Shawnee National Forest in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Since then the government has continued to add to Shawnee's total acreage.

Over the years it has become a major tourist attraction in southern Illinois. The dramatic landscape is webbed with hiking routes such as six-mile Beaver Trail that winds through the hills, crosses an earthen dam, then rims the shoreline of Pounds Hollow Lake. From the trail hikers survey the wonders of Garden of the Gods, where a gray, humpbacked bluff stands like a lone dromedary among stone sentinels.

At Mermet Lake a cypress swamp bristles with the knobby knees of deciduous conifers. Cedar Lake's underwater rocky ledges undulate through translucent waters. These and other lakes re popular with swimmers.

Glen and Carolyn Schaeffer of St. Louis and their two children, Tim, 10, and Christine, 13, are frequently day-visitors to Shawnee, and spend many summer weekend afternoon swimming in the 2,400-acre Lake Kinkaid. "The sand beach is as pretty as you'll find anywhere," Carolyn said. "The water's clean, and it's never so crowded as to be unpleasant."

And Tim Schaeffer, a dedicated fisherman, enjoys catching catfish or bluegills at nearby children-only Smokey Bear Lake.

Biking is a good way to see Shawnee's abundance of Canada geese, wild turkeys, songbirds, whitetail deer, and other wildlife.

Despite the seemingly pristine stillness that can drape Shawnee like a mist, there are areas that the Forest Service allows to be harvested for timber. Until recently, that meant trees could be "managed" in 60 percent of the forest. But the new management plan, recently approved by the U.S. Secretary Agriculture, has brought sweeping changes.

When the plan was first presented, about 7,500 individuals, organizations, and agencies responded during a public comment period, according to Tom , public-affairs officer for the Forest Service. The plan was amended "to achieve the best balance" among all interests, and appears to have been well received, he said.

Among the changes: "The timber emphasis is no longer there," Hagerty said. The forest's timber base has been reduced to about 22 percent, and no more than 3.4 million board-feet of "sale quality" hardwood trees can be cut over the next 10 years. As of March 1992, no trees will be harvested within a 200-foot strip of land along any of Shawnee's perennial streams. This helps prevent erosion in riparian areas while protecting the habitats of nesting species, mostly nongame birds, and bats. A migration corridor of uncut trees will be left for the birds.

Open fields will be converted to native warm-season grasses, a habitat preferred by wild turkeys and quail, and forbs seed, popular with these birds, will be planted to increase hunting opportunities.

"Nongame bird management" will be provided in nine areas of about 1,100 acres each of "forest interior units," or old-growth forest, habitat needed by migratory songbirds, mainly warblers and finches that come from Central America to nest and raise their young, Hagerty said. Elsewhere, about 4,500 acres of the forest will be burned annually to restore remnant barrens, glades, and savannahs, and to maintain wildlife openings. Another 500 acres will be burned annually to stimulate oak and hickory regeneration.

Non-native pines will be removed and an effort made to restore Shawnee's original ecosystem: hardwood forests, oak savannahs, and glads. The plan will protect and enhance habitat for numerous threatened, endangered, or "sensitive" native plant and animal species. Nearly 26,000 acres of Shawnee is now designated wilderness.

The new plan permits oil and gas leasing except in wilderness areas, and several mining companies retain mineral rights to deposits of silica (used in cosmetics) and fluorspar (needed for the production of fluorine) under certain areas of Shawnee. The Sierra Club is pushing to have certain mineral-deposit areas, amounting to about 3,000 acres, designated as wilderness, and that situation is being studied, Hagerty said.

For the time being, as long as mining companies own mineral rights to the land, the Forest Service has little control over exploration or mining in those areas. But if the general economy should make mining unprofitable, and this is a distinct possibility, the companies may agree to transfer their mineral rights to the government, at which time the land could be given the "wilderness" designation.

The present management plan seems to have struck a balance between the wishes of those who would protect the forest and those who would exploit its resources. Hagerty said the Forest Service had expected out-of-state hardwood companies to howl in protest at the reduction in Shawnee's timber base, but so far it hasn't happened.

Many thousands of individuals have worked to ensure that Shawnee National Forest will not only benefit the local economy through its recreational facilities, oil and gas leasing, and timber sales, but also serve as a haven for endangered or threatened plant and animal species, Hagerty said.

"The forest is a composite of interrelated micro-ecosystems that are everchanging, and the new management plan allows these processes to go on with less interruption," he said. "We like to think of Shawnee National Forest as a living outdoor laboratory."

Pamela Selbert covers environmental and resource topics from her home in St. Louis, Missouri.


Hundreds of snakes, of about 20 different species, spend the summer in the 2,000 acres of tree-studded swampland that make up Shawnee National Forest's Winters Pond and the adjoining Scatters. They sun on fallen logs and cut twig-thin furrows through green-crusted water, but when the weather turns cold, the snakes literally head for the hills--a sight that has been called phenomenal.

A narrow, shaded gravel road--called LaRue, Scatters, or merely "Snake Road"--separates the swampland from the snakes' winter quarters, a massive limestone bluff. For three weeks between early September and early November, when the days shorten and nighttime temperatures dip into the 40s, hundreds of snakes cross the road, bound for crevices and cracks in the shelf-like bluff. Those cracks lead to deeper cave areas where winter temperatures don't drop below freezing.

On any given day during this annual migration--repeated in reverse between mid-March and mid-May--visitors can see venomous copperheads, timber rattlers, and cottonmouths, as well as nonvenomous king and rat snakes, yellowbellies, and green (a threatened species in Illinois), garter, earth, and ringneck snakes. Many of the reptiles, especially territorial cottonmouths, linger on the warm road, making them vulnerable to vehicles. About 15 years ago the Forest Service requested and was granted permission to close the road to all but foot traffic during the migration.

On a coolish, cloudy Sunday in early October, Dr. Ron Brandon, professor of zoology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, brought 14 students from his herpetology class to the Shawnee to identify and photograph snakes. Collecting is strictly forbidden. Although conditions were less than ideal for reptile viewing, the group walked the length of the 2 1/2-mile road and back again.

"I've been teaching herpetology at S.I.U. for 30 years and haven't yet missed a snake migration at Shawnee," said Brandon, who also takes "observation" trips to other Shawnee sites. "Automobiles used to be the snakes' worst enemies, but with the road closed, populations are staying about the same year to year." Brandon considers Shawnee to be the best place to observe a migration because species are numerous and the reptiles are concentrated.

Critters sighted that day included a juvenile and an adult yellowbelly snake, several water moccasins or cottonmouths, a six-inch mud snake, several western ribbon snakes, several of the threatened greens, and an earth snake. There was also a scattering of newts and ground skinks, zigzag and long-tailed salamanders, and numerous green cricket frogs.

Also along on the field trip was Scott Ballard, a natural-heritage biologist for the Illinois Department of Conservation. His master's degree thesis--a survey of herpetofauna (reptiles) at Shawnee--is only the third such study ever done.

"I've spent three or four days a week here--spring, summer, and fall--for a couple of years," Ballard said. "The herps are always visible, and during migration--well, it's nothing short of phenomenal."

But with the phenomenon comes a downside: Collectors, arriving with snake hooks and bags, could prove even more detrimental to the population than automobiles have been.

"I would encourage people to come and look--these woods are alive with reptiles, and it's exciting to see them--but don't do more than catch and release," Ballard said. "It would be a shame to destroy what's here."
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Title Annotation:includes related article on snake migration at the Shawnee National Forest's Winters Pond; management of the Shawnee National Forest
Author:Selbert, Pamela
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Heartburn in the heartland forests.
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