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On the Trail: Remembering the 'Shawnee Showdown'

  • Mike Baltz photo

    Mike Baltz photo


  • Mike Baltz photo


  • Courtesy of Suzanne Asaturian

 
By Mike Baltz
updated: 4/26/2022 5:12 PM

Several months ago, I attended the premier of the film "Shawnee Showdown: Keep the Forest Standing," a documentary by Cade Bursell, a professor in SIU Carbondale's School of Media Arts.

The film weaves a riveting story around a weeks-long standoff between environmental activists and the Forest Service in the summer of 1990 near the Fairview Christian Church in Jackson County. The activists were protesting a planned timber harvest near the site.

Although that site was eventually commercially cut, the activists continued their efforts to push for better forest planning and won an injunction against the Forest Service that prohibited most forest management on the Shawnee, an injunction that remained in effect until 2013.

When I got to southern Illinois in 2000, as a freshly minted PhD and an employee of The Nature Conservancy, I heard bits and pieces of the 'Shawnee Showdown' story. And in the intervening twenty years, I had heard additional bits and pieces of the story. But Professor Bursell's film did a great job of filling in some holes in my understanding of those events.

After seeing the film, I encouraged Professor Bursell to arrange a screening for conservation professionals working in southern Illinois. I pointed out that, to my knowledge, no one working in conservation in southern Illinois in 1990 is still punching a time clock and, as such, this film would be well worth viewing by the new generation of conservation professionals.

Indeed, a lot has changed since 1990, especially when it comes to forest management in the Shawnee and a new national focus on using prescribed fire and timber harvesting to create ecological benefits and restore ecosystems.

Additionally, an important Forest Service-wide 2012 Planning Rule replaced an outdated 1982 rule. The new planning rule called for forest plans to be more adaptive, science-based, and developed with a stronger level of public involvement. As a result, the Shawnee Forest Management Plan was amended to require regular monitoring of management actions.

Importantly, the scientific understanding of the ecological pros and cons of different timber management practices has grown exponentially since 1990.

In 1991, the Missouri Ozark Forest Ecosystem Project was initiated as a 100-year experiment to quantify ecological responses to different timber management practices. And as a graduate student in avian ecology at the University of Missouri at the time, I was involved in collecting bird data for the project in the mid-1990s.

The research findings from that long-term study have revealed that creating patches of 'scrub' habitat in forests, through the use of timber harvesting, can have important ecological benefits to wildlife, especially birds.

These benefits can be so significant that Audubon Vermont created a Foresters for the Birds program that promotes integrating timber and songbird habitat management. Indiana, among other states, has created a similar program and I'm hopeful that Illinois will follow suite.

I told a friend recently that ecology always makes sense. Of course, ecosystems are complicated and managing them is challenging. But if land managers are willing to adapt their actions based on the best available science, then the forest and all of its wildlife will always win.

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