Hundreds slated to meet in Shawnee National Forest to address climate crisis and protecting public land

A convention this week seeks to address the climate crisis and protect public land. Activism against logging in Shawnee National Forest goes back decades.

By Amelia Blakely, Staff Reporter

The climate crisis is a daunting cataclysm unfolding in real time. 

To address this crisis and protecting public land, activists, organizers, grassroots and indigenous community leaders, scientists, experts and youth will convene this weekend to develop new strategies and networks at the Touch of Nature Environmental Center. 

It’s called The Resurgence: North American Forest and Climate Movement Convergence. 

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“This is not simply a conference where people will be informed and then go home better informed,” Karen Pickett, an environmental activist from the Bay Area in California attending the event, said. “It’s time to do something different.” 

In response to the urgency of the issue, the climate movement was formed by activists on an international level, and that’s huge, Pickett said. 

But, she questions if large public demonstrations such as climate strikes are successfully shifting the conversation. 

“If you confront these questions, then you can feel frustrated that we’re not doing enough. It’s easy to convince oneself of that,” she said. “But, you know it’s more productive to think, ‘okay, how can we shift the conversation or have a different kind of conversation, or build better, dynamic networks with each other?’”

According to the Convergence’s website, the event was organized into Strategic Action Sessions to help “outside the box” thinking to address the root causes of the climate crisis. 

Topics include building and supporting youth movements, industrial infrastructure and development and brainstorming real solutions such as ending the use of fossil fuels, protecting forests, promoting and helping reduce over-consumption and establish legal rights of nature.

On Oct. 11 and 12 keynote speakers are scheduled for the evening. Time and location for speakers are on the Convergence’s online agenda

Keynote speakers include: 

  • Jayden Foytlin, a 16-year-old climate justice activist and one of the 21 plaintiffs in a landmark case that is suing the U.S. government for its contribution to climate change.
  • Cherri Foytlin, an afro-indigenous organizer, writer, speaker and mother of six. She’s the author of “Spill It! The Truth About the Deep Horizon Oil Rig Explosion,” and is an advisory member for Another Gulf is Possible and the National Poor People’s Campaign.
  • Winnie Overbeek, the International Coordinator of the World Rainforest Movement will speak about the social and ecological impacts of industrial timber plantations and the struggles of communities taking back their land. According to the Convergence’s website, he will also address the burning of the Amazon Rainforest and Brazilian President Jair Bolsanoro’s leadership with the crisis. 
  • Barney Bush is a Shawnee/Cayuga poet activist. His honors include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He established the Institute of the Southern Plans, a Cheyenne Indian school and helped universities develop Native American studies programs. Bush currently lives and works on ancestral homelands in southern Illinois. 

The underlying message for the event is “it’s time,” Pickett said. 

Individuals interested in the keynote speakers may attend their presentation by letting a volunteer know they found out about it through the Daily Egyptian, Convergence media contact Steve Taylor said. However, Strategic Action Sessions and other scheduled agenda items are closed to the public because this was an event requiring registration that has ended. 

The Convergence ends on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, also known as Columbus Day. 

A look back on local environmental activism in the Shawnee National Forest 

When climate change was known as “global warming,” environmentalists in the late eighties and early nineties worked to stop logging in the Shawnee National Forest for 17 years. 

The beginning of the end of the National Forest Service’s timber projects happened when activists occupied the Fairview woodlands for 79 days, said John Wallace, a local environmentalist who was a part of the occupation. 

On Day 77, which also happened to be Wallace’s thirtieth birthday, the logging company moved in with the support of the forest service and law enforcement. Numerous arrests took place. 

Wallace locked a bicycle lock around his neck to a log skidder that required a blow torch to cut him free. 

A day later the courts, as logging commenced, ruled a temporary stay on the timber sale and the project stopped. 

Eventually the land was logged, Wallace said. 

In 1996, plaintiffs who opposed the Forest Service’s timber program won a lawsuit by pointing out the Forest Service’s program didn’t have the scientific data to say they were maintaining bird species that were in decline and were failing to meet a requirement of the law. 

“The courts told the forest service that they needed to go back to the drawing board,” Wallace said. 

Judges issued a permanent injunction that stopped the timber program. In 2006, the Forest Service issued a new forest management plan with more scientific data and judges withdrew the injunction. 

Nearly thirty years later, some of the same environmentalists who occupied Fairview will be coming to the Convergence with a forest service project that proposes to cut 485 acres of forest in mind. 

The proposed cut is part of a larger Forest Service project called the “Waterfall Stewardship Pilot Project.” According to a Forest Service document of talking points, the project proposes two actions: one choice is no action, a decision favored by local environmentalists.  

The alternative is to have 485 acres of a commercial timber harvest in pine and hardwoods, such as native oaks and hickories, 560 acres of herbicide to manage invasive species, 40 acres of pollinator seeding, 546 acres of stand improvement and temporary road construction, according to a forest service document. 

When preliminary surveys were conducted in the project area of rural Jackson County on the south side of Kinkaid Lake the forest service discovered native species of Oak trees were aging and not successfully regenerating because of a heavy tree canopy, the forest service talking points document said. 

Many mature trees in one space prevents sunlight from reaching seedlings on the forest floor. Oak and Hickory seedlings need ample sunlight to grow, Justin Dodson, a silviculturist for the forest service, said. 

Dodson’s job is to manage the forest’s health including, how vegetation is living and growing. He is also in charge of seeing how the forest service can remove trees that need to be cut down to allow the forest to grow. 

The Forest Service argues no active management will have consequences on the animals, plants, birds, insects and pollinators, which make up the biological web. 

“Our mission is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests while also meeting the needs of current and future generations,” Dodson said.

The National Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture, which manages the production of food and resources. 

“In order to maintain and sustain forest health and productivity over time, we also provide products for the needs of the people,” Dodson said. 

Environmentalists including Wallace and Pickett argue the forest service is chasing money from timber. 

“They’re really motivated to sell timber,” Wallace said. “Now, they don’t claim it’s for timber, it’s for forest health.” 

After the Fairview occupation and other protests in the Trail Tears State Forest opposing logging, the public made it clear they didn’t appreciate trees being cut down on public land. 

Both Pickett and Wallace have spent the majority of their adult lives as environmental activists. Before they chose activism, both said they had childhoods that were immersed in the natural world from which an appreciation and reverence grew for nature. 

Wallace has professional experience in land management and has a degree from Southern Illinois University Carbondale for plant and soil science. 

The Forest Service does receive money from timber harvests through timber receipts or Knutson-Vandenburg funds. In a forest service document provided, receipts are considered secondary to the primary objective of maintaining a forest’s health. 

Dodson said the claim the forest service cares more about money than forest health is completely false. 

According to the document, the money generated from these sales are used for local community needs or forest projects which include improving or treating water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and forest health. 

“Everything we propose is for the benefit of the forest and the forest resource,” Dodson said. 

The logging industry is what helps the forest service achieve management by providing timber harvest equipment the service does not have, Dodson said. 

As a silviculturist, Dodson goes into the woods and prescribes what treatment each tree stand needs. Trees are marked to designate which treatment will be done, and then the timber is offered to companies that cut trees.

Prescriptions include taking down old trees that are dying or thinning out forests so trees aren’t stressed by competing for resources. 

The State of Illinois has a best management practice guide which informs forest service contractors where they can build trails and which slopes are operational for which equipment, Dodson said. 

When the forest service enters a contract with a purchaser, the service holds the buyer accountable for every guideline included in the agreement. 

“If they violate a BMP then we can take repercussions,” he said. 

Most of the purchasers the forest works with seem to want to do the right thing, Dodson said. 

“But there are bad people in the world, and it does happen,” he said. 

The Shawnee Forest can and is changing 

Before European settlers carved up the land in southern Illinois, the forest was predominantly oak and hickory forests, Dodson said. 

But as people bought land, cut down trees and farmed, the soil was left depleted. In the 1930s, the forest service was created, and the federal government bought land back from the original families to rebuild the forest for the purpose of managing natural resources and recreation.

“They found out pretty quickly that the native oaks and hickories didn’t take too well,” Wallace said. “They didn’t tolerate the dry conditions and depleted soils.” 

Instead, they planted non-native pine trees that thrived in the highly disturbed and dry ground. 

“The problem is, when you take native forests, and you remove the forest component by removing the trees, depleting the soil and removing all the undergrowth, a process is started called succession,” Wallace said. 

Now, the Forest Service is working to revert the forest back to native hardwoods. With no management, non-native trees species such as sugar maple, beech and ash will become the make-up of a future forest, he said. 

Wallace said the forest service’s plan sounds reasonable. 

“But what they fail to mention is that there are natural processes happening now that the pines have assisted,” Wallace said. 

Over the decades, the pines created a moist and nutritious soil for the native hardwoods to make a comeback, Wallace said. He fears that if trees in the forest are harvested, the equipment used will destroy the understory of the forest. 

An obliterated understory is detrimental to the forest’s health, Wallace said. 

“What we contend is, if there was a way to carefully take away the pines and not disturb the soil and humus on the ground, I would not be opposed to that because I appreciate the natural resource of wood trees provide,” Wallace said. 

One reason for proposed land management by the Forest Service is to create a more resilient forest to weather harsh storms, and the predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that calls for drier and hotter temperatures in southern Illinois, Dodson said. 

Oak and Hickory trees are shown to fare better in drier climates, he said. The species which don’t fare as well in drought conditions are the non-native species that are seen growing up on the forest floor. 

“If you do nothing in management and the trajectory of this forest is to convert to sugar maple and beech, and future climate change predictions say it’s going to be warmer and drier, then the trees that are going to be here won’t be able to sustain,” Dodson said. 

The Forest Service manages 286,000 acres in southern Illinois, and the footprint of management per harvest site is in the five years is 500 acres, Dodson said. There are also wilderness areas of the Shawnee that are dense forests because of no management. 

The predictions from the IPCC Report that influences the forest service’s proposed land management plans also guides environmentalists’ concerns about harvesting timber. 

Trees are great at carbon sequestration, the process of carbon being captured by organic things such as plants. Mature and big trees are even better, Wallace said. 

“I like to say, ‘no forest has ever been logged back to health,’” he said. “You don’t cut down trees to restore a forest, especially the trees which is claimed are the desirable species.” 

But the Forest Service’s concern is to manage the forest to improve resilience to an unpredictable future of climate, Dodson said. 

“We don’t manage the forest for carbon, we manage the carbon in the forest,” he said. “There’s a lot of untouched ground of unmanaged land that is still sequestering carbon.”

Forest Service and activists agree forest management is not easy 

The Shawnee National Forest, and southern Illinois is one of the most ecologically diverse regions in the nation, and therefore management and stewardship is crucial to maintaining a healthy forest; especially with the climate’s unpredictable future. 

“Our geographic location is such that we have northern species, the farthest south you can find northern species, the farthest north you can find southern species, the farthest east that you can find western species and so on,” Wallace said. “It’s a biological crossroads, I hate to put in terms of roads, but it really is.” 

The unique and diverse nature of southern Illinois’ forests make it very complicated to manage. 

“It’s not as simple as you often think. If someone makes forest management sound simple, there’s something wrong,” Wallace said. “They’re not being honest.” 

Wallace said he agrees that there are places in the Shawnee that need “first-aid.” For example, locations with unusual species will be lost without management.  

But, Wallace said he claims first aid is not needed across the board. 

“Nature can heal itself,” Wallace said. “Humans impact the natural environment, but if you leave it alone it will come back in time.”

Staff reporter Amelia Blakely can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @AmeilaBlakely.

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