Let the Sun Shine In (LSSI) was established in 2016 as a Southern Illinois conservation program dedicated to restoring and maintaining southern Illinois’s Oak Ecosystems. LSSI works with federal, state, local, nongovernmental partners, and private landowners with the goals of addressing threats to woodland and forest communities, maintaining biodiversity, and reducing forest fragmentation.
The program coordinator, Mike Baltz wrote the following letters to the editor on Oct. 22, 2022. He has a doctorate in ecology, a 20-plus year resident of Jackson County and a former Southern Illinois area director for The Nature Conservancy.
At a recent Carbondale City Council meeting, there was a presentation specific to a proposal to create a Shawnee National Park and Climate Preserve, presented by a representative of a group calling themselves the “Shawnee Defenders.” To summarize the 30-plus minute presentation in a few words: A National Park would be better than the current National Forest and it would also help fight climate change. The group has been actively trying to drum-up support for the change in designation, suggesting, among other things, that a National Park would be a boon to local economies. What’s important to know, however, is that the Forest-to-Park idea has not been supported by a virtual who’s who of national conservation groups active in Southern Illinois, including The Nature Conservancy, National Wild Turkey Federation, American Bird Conservancy, and Sierra Club. Put simply, the professional conservation community’s opposition to the proposal could be summed-up as, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” But to elaborate, opposition is mostly specific to concerns about forest management, or the potential lack thereof, as a National Park.First, it is important to understand that the ecology of our Southern Illinois oak forests is currently out of whack. Oaks have historically dominated Illinois forests, but while the number of forested acres in Illinois is increasing the dominance of oaks is waning. This is due in large part to almost a century of fire prevention that began in the 1930’s. Prior to that time, relatively frequent fires favored the survival of fire-resistant oaks and discouraged the growth of shade-tolerant tree species, like beech and maple. Invasive species have also become a huge threat to oak regeneration and forest health in the last 100 years. Today, oak saplings make up just 1% of young trees in some forests while many of the mature oaks are reaching the end of their lifespans. Our Southern Illinois forests have essentially become ‘old oaks homes’, which is bad news for our wildlife.The approximately 300,000-acre Shawnee National Forest is ground-zero for this forest conversion and researchers at SIU have predicted that the oak forests of the ‘Illinois Ozarks’ may convert to beech-maple forests in less than 30 years. The good news is that it’s not too late to save our oak forests and current management by the U.S. Forest Service of the Shawnee National Forest for oak regeneration is being guided by the best available science — management actions that are supported by, and contributed to, by all the professional conservation interests in the region. Having said all that, the concern of the professional conservation community is that a change in designation from National Forest, managed by the Forest Service, to a National Park, managed by the Park Service, could jeopardize our Southern Illinois forests because National Parks, by definition, are managed more for recreation than they are for forest health. And as stated above, without proper management, our oak forests will soon cease to be the forests that our wildlife depends on. Unfortunately, an ugly part of the ‘pro-Park’ campaign has been an effort to smear the Forest Service and misrepresent their management of the forest, with an emphasis on timber harvest activities. So, here is some clarification: First, there is no clear-cutting on the Forest. Rather, there are areas that are selectively cut, reducing the density of trees and canopy cover so as to let more light into the forest. The result is a less-dense stand of trees that will encourage oak regeneration. I have recently walked areas that are being actively harvested on the Shawnee and I have seen this with my own eyes. Second, the level of planning, regulation, oversight, and monitoring involved in timber harvests on the Shawnee guarantees that these efforts dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’ legally and that they are ecologically beneficial to the forest. In comparison, there are really no legal constraints on timber harvests on private land, often resulting in timber harvests that are ecological disasters. Finally, there are just a few hundred acres being cut on the forest, annually, in contrast to pro-Park references to thousands of acres scheduled for harvest. To clarify, when the Forest Service plans a project, only a fraction of that project area is scheduled to be harvested, and only a fraction of that fraction is actually harvested. Regarding a Climate Preserve designation for a new park, restricting the selective cutting of a few hundred acres of forest, which is all a Forest-to-Park transition might actually accomplish, would clearly not qualify as a contribution to the fight against climate change, above-and-beyond what the Shawnee National Forest already contributes in the form of carbon sequestration. In summary, friends I’m siding with the scientists and conservation professionals on this, and they are saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And if there is some potential economic benefit to a few business owners to be gained from a National Park in Southern Illinois, but forest health suffers because of it, then, in the end, we all lose.