Before the 1970's when the EPA regulations were established, the individual national forests were charged with designating trails so that they did not have to meet the EPA regulations. Unfortunately, trails were not designated in the Shawnee National Forest. This lead to a turbulent time after the Shawnee was found by equestrian's from outside southern Illinois. As time progressed, private campgrounds sprang up in various areas on the eastern side of the Shawnee. Once the Shawnee was discovered by so many, the trails became more impacted by the additional traffic. This increased traffic came to the attention of local environmentalists who pressured the Shawnee Forest employees to take action.
In the 1970's over 15,000 acres of Shawnee National Forest were designated as Natural Areas. These areas were to be closed to all but hiking but this was never enforced until the late 1980's & early 1990's. Within these areas are some of the most scenic places in the forest and had been used by equestrians since the Forest Service acquired the land.
The Shawnee Trail Conservancy was started by local people in 1994. These people could see that they were losing their access to the forest due to environmental issues and started a long history of advocating access for all users of the forest. In 1999 the STC became incorporated to protect its members.
The STC took the position of support for the local county government to reclaim jurisdiction of the old public roads that run through the forest. The jurisdiction of the old roads is a continuing issue to this day. Many of these roads have been used by equestrians as trails. The Forest Service acknowledges that equestrians can still ride these roads as part of the trail system, but does not acknowledge the right of vehicles to use them. Many of these old public roads go through the Natural Areas. The STC does not seek to re-open old roads across private property. Each individual road would have to be taken to court for a decision on what entity owned the road.
ATVs were banned from the entire forest as a result of a lawsuit brought against the Forest Service by local environmentalists. The court had ordered the Forest Service to complete an environmental impact study concerning ATV use in the Shawnee but no study was completed, so no trails were built for ATV's. The prospect of Shawnee ATV trails is extremely bleak.
In 1999, the local environmentalists filed another lawsuit against the Forest Service regarding seven Natural Areas that had horse trails through them as part of the 1992 Forest Plan. The STC filed as an intervenor. The horse trails that were on the ground in the natural areas prior to the plan designation were to be grandfathered in as designated trails but were not included. All the 81 Natural Areas were ordered closed by the court leaving only one natural area at the Garden of Gods area with a designated trail.
An additional issue of campground permits was added to this lawsuit. The STC and the FS were in the same position regarding this issue. The court found that the private campgrounds should be required to be under permit, so a special permit was created just for campgrounds in the Shawnee.
Part of the permit regarded what trails were to be used by campgrounds. At some point, the STC was able to convince the court that it must see the conditions on the ground. The Judge came off the bench and became a mediator hoping to finalize all the controversy over the use of the forest. The Judge walked and rode a horse on some of the trails. An agreement was made by the mediator and all parties agreed to it in Dec. 2008. This became a turning point for the management of the Shawnee and a tentative truce between the environmentalists, equestrians and the FS.
It wasn't until 2004 that the FS started the procedure to designate trails in the eastern part of the Shawnee. Completed in 2006, there are designated trails within the four watersheds on the east Shawnee. Most of the trail usage is in these watersheds. Trails within these areas have either been relocated or reconstructed; or are slated for relocation or reconstruction. The goal being better sustainability and less environmental impact while providing the best trail riding experience possible within the constraints of the type of soil and regulations.
STC has been able to take the position of working with the FS to identify problems, concerns and provide ideas to better the trail system. We expect that there will be issues that we must take a stand against the FS to maintain our mission statement of providing all users access to the Shawnee Forest. Our efforts have contributed to the fact that there are more trails within the Shawnee than any other National Forest. And we share the rangers' hope to make the Shawnee the premier riding area in the U.S.