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Exploring the Shawnee's wilderness areas

  • The author's wife, Monique, at Garden of the Gods overlooking the wilderness area

    The author's wife, Monique, at Garden of the Gods overlooking the wilderness area
    Courtesy of Mike Baltz

  • U.S. Forest ServiceLusk Creek Wilderness sign

    U.S. Forest ServiceLusk Creek Wilderness sign

 
updated: 1/24/2022 8:07 AM

In southern Illinois, we are so fortunate to have the Shawnee National Forest as our backyard. It is currently almost 300,000 acres of protected, mostly forested land that we all benefit from and enjoy in different ways. But I think it's a fair bet that many people don't understand or could use a refresher on everything from how the whole thing got started to how it works.

So, for the next several weeks I'm taking to a deep dive on the Shawnee National Forest.

This week I'm writing about the wilderness areas in southern Illinois and a bit of the story behind them.

"The enemies of wildness are invincible, and they are everywhere, but the fight must go on. For every acre that you gain, 10,000 trees, flowers and all the other forest people… will rise and call you blessed." --John Muir

The Wilderness Act of 1964, one of the many legacies of the inspirational naturalist John Muir, provided the mechanism to protect unspoiled areas as wilderness areas.

The act defined wilderness as an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without improvements or human habitation.

The Eastern Wilderness Act of 1975 extended Wilderness designation to lands east of the Mississippi and the Illinois Wilderness Act of 1990, designated 7 wilderness areas in the Shawnee National Forest -- eventually protecting over 28,000 acres from development, logging and mining in perpetuity.

The wilderness areas in the Shawnee include: Bald Knob (5,802 acres), Bay Creek (2,759 acres), Burden Falls (3,693 acres), Clear Springs (4,741 acres), Garden of the Gods (3,953 acres), Lusk Creek (6,349 acres), and Panther Den (821 acres).

The forest service responsibilities specific to wilderness areas is managing them to provide opportunities for users to experience solitude in a primitive setting; where nature's forces are allowed to take their own course and the presence of humans is substantially unnoticeable.

Special regulations apply in wilderness to enhance and achieve these goals, like no motorized or mechanized use being allowed.

Camping is allowed but "leave no trace" outdoor ethics are "required" to keep the imprint of human use out of these special places.

A few years ago, I spent an afternoon hiking in the Lusk Creek Wilderness Area with John Wallace.

Lusk Creek is the largest wilderness area in the Shawnee and the namesake Lusk Creek, flowing through deep sandstone canyons, is one of the state's highest quality streams.

Wallace and I walked and talked about the value of wilderness and the future of wild places in southern Illinois.

Wallace is the spitting-image of a 60-something Muir, and he even quotes Muir with an appropriate Scottish-accent.

So, the outing was especially memorable.

Closer to home, this summer I plan to do some hiking with my son, James, in the Clear Springs and Bald Knob wilderness areas, just north of Trail of Tears State Forest.

But honestly, even if you never visit a Wilderness Area, I believe there's tremendous value in just knowing those places exist -- places where the 'forest people" are in charge and where an opportunity exists to retreat from civilization in search of healing, beauty, solitude and significance.

• Mike Baltz has a doctorate in biology and writes about changing the world from his home in Carbondale.