A New Job for Old Forests

A growing movement wants mature forests like the Shawnee to capture carbon.

TRUDGING THROUGH A JUMBLE of downed beech, oak, and yellow poplar trees, John Wallace nears the summit of a denuded hill and clambers atop a stump to survey the site. We are at one of the first of many logging operations that the US Forest Service (USFS) has recently launched after a 17-year moratorium within a vast tract called Bean Ridge in Shawnee National Forest.

“I’ve got to resist an emotional response,” Wallace says, as he exhales with restrained anger. “They call it shelter-wood cutting, but it’s just piecemeal clearcutting by a different name.”

With a full silver beard and knee-high, mud-caked boots, Wallace bears a striking resemblance to another John called Muir. He has explored the diverse ecosystems of the Shawnee, in Southern Illinois, for decades, combing its nearly 300,000 acres from the Ohio to the Mississippi River and reveling in treasures like the Snake Road — a remote gravel lane that is closed two months each fall and spring to allow copperheads, cottonmouths, and other snakes to migrate between swamps and limestone bluffs.

True to his Muir-like image, Wallace’s commitment to preservation runs deep. Back in the 1990s, he was part of a determined group of activists who helped block commercial logging, oil and gas drilling, as well as ATV use in Shawnee National Forest for 17 years. During that time, he slept out on a logging road for 77 days to block a clearcutting operation and ultimately locked his neck to a log skidder with a hardened bike lock — until police torched it and took him to jail.

That ban was lifted in 2013, after the Forest Service presented a revised management plan. This led to the eventual approval of 10,000 acres of commercial timber sales, dedicating a significant portion of timber toward chipped livestock bedding or one-use shipping pallets.

With the return of loggers and chainsaws after nearly two decades of forest solitude, local activists like Wallace find themselves again embroiled in a struggle to save the Shawnee. But this time, keenly aware that the cutting is unstoppable under current regulatory regimes, they are looking beyond the courts. Instead, they have come up with a novel concept: They want the forest’s management handed over to the National Park Service (NPS) to have much of it declared a national climate preserve.

THIS NEW KIND OF NATIONAL park property, advocates of the idea say, would place carbon storage above all else in a move toward reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide — one of the main culprits of global warming. According to the USFS, a mature tree — generally defined as one 80 years or older, depending on the species — absorbs more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. Multiply that by tens of thousands, and you have a respectable carbon bank.

“Shawnee National Park and Climate Preserve would actually acknowledge the need for carbon sequestration by protecting trees to play an integral role in mitigating climate change,” says Wallace, who is cofounder of Shawnee Forest Defense (SFD), a new group that is spearheading the push for the preserve and national park.

An aerial view of the sandstone bluffs at Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, Shawnee National Forest.

Abundant woodlands create habitat for all kinds of animals, including the eastern copperhead…

...and great egret.

“We only have eight years to right the ship and meet the United Nations target of 1.5 Celsius,” adds Karen Frailey, another SFD cofounder. “We have to take responsibility, because no place on Earth is going to be insulated from the consequences of climate change. And we have to start somewhere, so why not here in the Shawnee?”

Ideally, the group wants all of the Shawnee transferred to the National Park Service — akin to the smaller transfer that occurred in Ozark National Scenic Riverways in neighboring Missouri decades ago.

The NPS manages several types of preserves, variously tailored to include activities not traditionally found in national parks, such as some national seashores where hunting is allowed. The group envisions the climate preserve occupying the majority of the new national park, banning logging but accommodating locally cherished activities such as hunting and trapping.

Wallace says that SFD invites input but is not willing to compromise on resource extraction because “it contributes so much atmospheric carbon.” SFD has engaged Illinois politicians at the local, state, and national levels, and Wallace is encouraged that “lawmakers are intrigued by the prospect of a national park in Illinois.” Through their efforts, over 4,000 letters of support have been sent to US senators and House representatives for the national park proposal.

“The Shawnee can’t fight climate change alone, but having a climate preserve could be the start of something new, something we need,” Wallace says. “Scenic Riverways didn’t exist until the Ozark National Scenic Riverways was created. Now there are dozens across the country.” His hope is to see the concept spread nationwide. But this notion of “spread” may be what opponents of the proposal dread most.

“The Shawnee can’t fight climate change alone, but having a climate preserve could be the start of something new.”

SFD faces an entrenched opposition from the logging industry, as well as those who think forests in this region need to be managed for their “health” and to support the timber economy.

The debate over the Shawnee may foreshadow how efforts to protect what remains of mature and old-growth forests in the United States — forests critically important for both our climate and biodiversity — face an uphill battle.

SINCE THE NATIONAL PARK proposal was first floated by writer Les Winkeler in his outdoors column of the Southern Illinoisan in November 2021, tempers have flared at public hearings and meetings. USFS allies cling to decades-old grudges, established when environmentalists won the battle over Shawnee, and to old assumptions about forestry management.

These opponents of the climate-preserve proposal believe that the Forest Service’s revised management plan, which still relies on the three-pronged regime of logging, burning, and herbicides, is the only way to prevent the demise of Shawnee’s oak-hickory woodlands. Without management, they say, such forests will vanish.

This belief is based on the dubious silviculture doctrine that a Midwest forest must be thinned, burned, and sprayed to control a nonnative understory. (In fact, thinning allows more sunlight to hit the forest floor, temporarily increasing understory plant diversity, including nonnatives that can turn invasive.)

“The goal of national parks is to maintain a pristine and undisturbed landscape, but that’s not possible unless you manage the timber,” says Terry Wheeler, a private consulting forester who believes in the cut-burn-spray regime. In his view, national parks mismanage forests by leaving them untreated and uncut, allowing fire and invasive species to take over. “The day you take that pristine approach is the first day of the death of your forest. It’s just a matter of time until they die, ‘cause they’re not going to regenerate.”

Timber companies, of course, support the Forest Service’s management plan. They covet Shawnee’s highly profitable oak and hickory trees and are cashing in on federally subsidized timber sales on public lands where these trees are most profuse. Local USFS supervisor Michael Chaveas declined comment on the climate-preserve idea, since no formal legislation is yet proposed. His agency continues to practice a cut-burn-spray approach.

This approach, however, rests on a short-view assumption: that oak-hickory ought to dominate the region. That assumption does not stand up to a longer historical perspective. A seminal 1950s study by biogeographer Lucy Braun places oak-hickory dominant forests farther west in the Missouri-Arkansas Ozarks, north into Wisconsin, and east in the Appalachians. Shawnee, on the other hand, is described as mesophytic: a mix of oak, hickory, beech, maple, and yellow poplar. The Shawnee was once a thick mesophytic forest, until most of it was clearcut and plowed into oblivion in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Intensive logging and farming subsequently depleted the soils so much that many farmers abandoned the land, which then produced the oak-hickory forests under management today.

In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt created Shawnee National Forest as part of a broader scheme to reclaim America’s soils in the wake of the Dust Bowl era. With the planting of millions of trees, the Forest Service and Civilian Conservation Corps began transforming the devastated wasteland of southernmost Illinois into a verdant forest.

“The day you take that pristine approach is the first day of the death of your forest.”

By mid-century, their efforts were a stunning success. Ten-foot-deep gullies created by runaway erosion on the denuded, clearcut land began fading. Oak, hickory, beech, maple, and yellow poplar began reclaiming traditional habitats, filling moist riparian lowlands and dry rocky highlands with native trees. As these forests returned, so did intensive commercial logging operations, which eventually led to the historic 79-day blockade of a logging site by activists (including Wallace) and a court injunction that shut down logging in Shawnee for 17 years.

Now, as rich oak-hickory forests have reestablished themselves across the Shawnee, the USFS insists they must be logged to ensure their survival. Logging and burning (ranging from 1,000 to 2,500 acres) kill off “undesirable” groves of beech, maple, and yellow poplar. What logging advocates don’t say is that, absent thinning, naturally evolving forests become less profitable woodlands. Wheeler, the forestry consultant, alludes to this when he talks about the Smoky Mountains, one of the great old-growth forests of the Eastern United States. He laments that they are full of yellow poplar, worth just 15 cents a board foot. White oaks, he notes, fetch $2 per board foot.

Other assumptions stand in the way of the climate preserve.

Wheeler and other national park opponents say that such a preserve would, among other things, increase the risk of forest fires in the Shawnee. But this overlooks the fact that the NPS has embraced fire as a natural and desirable part of ecosystem preservation ever since the notorious Yellowstone fires of 1988. Additionally, research from Ohio University’s Environment and Plant Biology department has found that wildfires in eastern hardwood forests have historically burned far less than once believed.

​Mature trees — generally defined as one 80 years or older, depending on the species — absorb more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. Many of the trees in Shawnee are approaching their 80th birthday. Photo by Erik Cooper.

Karen Frailey, cofounder of Shawnee Forest Defense, views an untouched forest scheduled to be logged in Shawnee National Forest. Photo by Randall Hyman.

The Forest Service also assumes that forest clearings promote hunting, one of the agency’s multi-use priorities. This creates logger-hunter bedfellows. Wallace and I visited a tract far north of Bean Ridge, near Lake Kinkaid, that was being logged by a company called RTH Properties (Ready to Hunt), which caters to deer and turkey hunters across Illinois. When we arrived, two loggers were just wrapping up for the day. Stalled in the mud, their heavy equipment had created a clear-cut log yard completely devoid of vegetation. The tall oaks needed for natural reseeding of acorns were few and far between.

While industrial logging is efficient and profitable for lumber companies, Wallace says it leaves heavily compacted soils that are bare and unsuitable for rapid regeneration.

Michael Jeffords, a retired University of Illinois PhD entomologist, brings another perspective to the debate. He takes a bug’s-eye-view. In past studies, he sampled two-inch deep sections of forest soil and processed them to extract all the organisms.

“You do that in healthy soil,” he explains, “and you get hundreds, sometimes thousands of organisms, most of which you can’t identify — mites, insect larvae and fungi — all sorts of things. But do that in a heavily managed forest that is burned regularly, and guess what it will show us. Little or nothing.”

Better soil means better help with the climate too. According to the Office of Sustainability and Climate at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), trees are 50 percent carbon by dry weight, and the soil beneath them represents half the total carbon stored in forest systems in the United States. Ruin that soil, and you ruin the forest, and release that carbon.

Despite all this, the narrow cut-burn-spray approach to oak-hickory restoration remains a central tenet of Shawnee management.

MANY OF THE TREES in the Shawnee are nearing their 80th birthday, at which point such forests are generally considered mature. Such forests have better uses than lumber, or animal bedding, so many scientists and policy analysts are incensed by the renewed logging.

“The Shawnee Defenders are not alone,” says Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate at the Wisconsin-based Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC). “There are a lot of us very concerned with reserving the carbon stores and carbon sequestration capacity in our public forests, and to do that we need change at the logging agencies.”

A consortium of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, are now calling for a new federal rule that would place a moratorium on public-lands logging, at least until the completion of an order from President Joe Biden to inventory forests on all federal lands for their potential in fighting climate change.

“What ELPC and others have called for is for a suspension of logging mature and old-growth Forest Service lands and BLM lands,” Olsen says.

Recognizing that forests not only capture the atmosphere’s excess carbon dioxide, but also store vast quantities of it, the United Nations promotes tree planting on new lands — called afforestation — along with reforestation of former woodlands, as important pathways toward controlling global warming.

Biologists and foresters from Tufts and Harvard universities want to go a step farther, saying that “proforestation”— retaining and protecting already-established mature forests — is a far more efficient, economical, and immediate solution. Newly planted forests take decades to match the carbon capacity of mature forests, and even longer to establish stable habitats for at-risk insects, songbirds, reptiles, and mammals.

Supporting that approach, a recent paper from Oregon State University argues that the US needs to establish “strategic forest reserves” to protect wildlife and reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. It emphasizes western forests that would store the most carbon and help the most species if they were given the same level of protection from logging, grazing, and mining as designated wilderness areas receive. While old-growth western forests excel in carbon storage, eastern forests are vital as well.

“Keep in mind, it’s a relative comparison,” says Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at Wild Heritage, an Earth Island Institute project that advocates for preserving primary forests. (Earth Island Institute is the publisher of Earth Island Journal.) “You look within a given forest type and find where you’re going to have the highest carbon stock value.”

A panorama of tourists at Shawnee, waiting to view the total solar eclipse in 2017. Millions of people flocked to the forest to view the eclipse in 2017. Photo by Bart Everson.

A fisherman takes a morning excursion on Cedar Lake, another popular eclipse viewing spot in Shawnee National Forest. Photo by Randall Hyman.

Families check out Burden Falls, located right off a parking area near one of the entry points to the forest. Locals near the Shawnee, in towns like Carbondale and Marion, already have some experience with how nature tourism can bring revenue to the region. Photo by Joesph Gage.

To illustrate his point, DellaSala refers to matureforests.org, and its online map of mature forests nationwide that he and other scientists have compiled, pointing out broad swaths of blue pixels, or mature forests, in the Shawnee. Recognizing the value of these woodlands, ELPC and others have proposed three new federal Wilderness Areas, called Camp Hutchins, Ripple Hollow, and Burke Branch, in hopes of leaving them as untouched and wild as possible.

IN ADDITION TO BIODIVERSITY and carbon storage, turning Shawnee into an NPS-run climate reserve could also provide local economic benefits — an issue many Southern Illinois business owners, tourism operators, and politicians are concerned about. Jobs and tax revenues vanished here with the demise of coal mines decades ago, leaving entire counties destitute, with only commercial prisons to sustain them.

According to a 2022 University of Houston study, adding NPS designation to a nature-oriented destination can create a 3- to 4-percent increase in employment and 4- to 6-percent increase in income. The NPS has itself identified the central Midwest as low in national parks yet high in major population centers with rich visitor potential.

Locals near the Shawnee, in towns like Carbondale and Marion, already have some experience with how nature tourism can bring revenue to the region. When a total solar eclipse cast its spectacular shadow across the region in 2017, millions of tourists flocked here, along with millions of dollars. It was a lesson in tourism that few have forgotten. “It was crazy,” Wallace recalls. “People were everywhere, on the shore, in their boats. It was more than we could handle.”

“The Forest Service is not about creating tourism, but the Park Service is. This could be a huge boon to our area.”

Half of Cedar Lake lies within Shawnee National Forest. The other half is owned by the municipality of Carbondale, which draws drinking water from the lake for over 30,000 residents. Wallace was lake supervisor during the eclipse, coordinating the crowds and addressing their needs. This morning, on a September dawn, he guides us in his pontoon boat across the 1,750-acre lake. He searches for a buoy marking the exact intersection of the 2017 total eclipse and the next one, which will occur in 2024, along the trajectory of maximum duration. The buoy is lost, but in less than two years the crowds will find their way here. Weather permitting, the Shawnee will bring another cash windfall to the region. Wallace has made the date — April 8, 2024 — his personal deadline for moving the climate preserve forward in a substantive way.

Winkeler, the outdoors columnist, helped Wallace with the preserve idea.

“The Forest Service is not about creating tourism, but the Park Service is,” he says. “This could be a huge boon to our area. Frankly, changing the name from Shawnee National Forest to Shawnee National Park is not going to change the natural resources we have here, but it will call people’s attention to what we have and bring people in.”

Amid growing debate, Steve Melville, who operates a 77-acre campus of woodland cabins adjacent to Rim Rock National Recreation Trail, in eastern Shawnee, is a friend to all. He supports a national park but understands why some folks are opposed. Melville’s chief concern is human resources.

“The Park Service has more staff,” he says, noting that the USFS struggles to maintain sites like Rim Rock and recently had to introduce user fees. “They have more money, they have a bigger budget. They could bring people over from the Forest Service who already have the knowledge.” Standing in a broad pasture clearing, he hand-feeds his two miniature donkeys. They butt heads, then eat side by side, both wanting the same thing: a little room, a little respect.

In his own work campaigning for three additional wilderness areas in the Shawnee, ELPC policy advocate Tyler Barron says that while some forests can be responsibly logged, others “obviously should not be.” “The fact that they are at risk at all is justification enough” to preserve them, he says.

It is clear that different forest ecosystems require different management policies. Equally clear is that, if we are to slow climate disruption, we need what remains of mature forests worldwide to remain standing. The Shawnee, untouched for nearly 20 years, is a good candidate.

Like Barron, Glenn Poshard, who represented Southern Illinois for 14 years as a state senator and US congressman, sees it from both sides. He grew up in the Shawnee and fondly remembers gazing at starry winter skies with his father, a hunter and trapper, lying atop the sandstone bluffs of Garden of the Gods, long before it was a recreation area. He strongly supports a national park. As the heavens swing toward a second great American eclipse in 2024 and more Illinoisans voice support for a national park, stars may be aligning for the creation of the nation’s first true climate preserve.

“I’m not faulting anybody who disagrees with it, but I think our time has come,” he says. “I think the time is here to take the next step.”

Reporting for this feature was supported by the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Fund for Environmental Journalism.

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