In southern Illinois, we are 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 want to talk about the mission of the forest service and how that mission represents perhaps the most challenging mandate for any of the federal natural resource agencies.
The short version of the forest service mission is, "Caring for the Land and Serving People."
But what does that mean exactly?
From the day it was founded in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service has been working toward finding a balance between conserving forests for sustained natural resource use and preserving forests for their inherent beauty and recreation.
National forest management initially focused on protecting land against overgrazing, controlling and combating fire, and maximizing timber production. But by the 1950s, the national forests were struggling to meet the increased demands for forest resources, especially timber and recreation.
The Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960 clarified that the Forest Service needed to both manage for non-timber values like recreation, watershed protection and wildlife, as well as manage their timber resources in a sustainable way.
Then, in 1976, the National Forest Management Act was passed, requiring long-range planning by the forest service to ensure sustainability while maintaining a quality environment in National forests. You can find the Shawnee National Forest plan online.
The point of this history lesson is, in part, to highlight what I see as the tremendous challenge of satisfying the forest service's multi-use mandate -- with uses including hunting, hiking, and horseback-riding, as well as timber production -- all while operating under the bigger umbrella of protecting forest health.
Clearly, while appropriate, and important, the multiple-use mandate makes it difficult to satisfy all of the forest's diverse interest groups when it comes to making national forest management decisions.
But for what it's worth, I have known and worked with dozens of forest service employees on the Shawnee over the years, and I haven't met a single person that I didn't believe was committed to protecting the resource and doing their best to fulfill the forest service mission.
And there are always opportunities for public input specific to forest management planning and management actions. (I'll write more about that process in an upcoming article.)
In the end, while there may be disagreements on some of the details of management at times, it's useful to acknowledge that protecting the long-term ecological health and viability of the Shawnee National Forest is in everyone's best interests.
I think we can all agree on that!
• Mike Baltz has a doctorate in biology and writes about changing the world from his home in Carbondale.