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Carbondale resolution backs move to convert Shawnee National Forest to a national park

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Courtesy
/
USDA Forest Service
An overlook at the Garden of the Gods at Shawnee National Forest. A resolution passed by the Carbondale City Council supports changing the forest into a national park and climate preserve.

City officials in Carbondale have passed a resolution that supports changing Shawnee National Forest into a national park and climate preserve.

The council voted 5-1 to support the resolution. It’s an initial step that aims to show the city’s support for shifting the management of the forest from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service to the U.S. Department of Interior.

Converting the forest to a national park would benefit the environment and sustain plant life, said John Wallace, outreach coordinator for Shawnee Forest Defense, an environmental advocacy group.

“Whatever forests we already have standing that are mature for us, we need to keep them standing,” Wallace said. “The best examples that we have are on public land, and in Illinois, the best example is the Shawnee National Forest.”

Wallace said the biggest gain from converting the forest into a national park and climate preserve is the elimination of commercial logging efforts and resource extraction. Forests are instrumental in capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Logging of the forest has been a source of dispute for decades. Activists fought to prevent commercial logging of the forest and in 1996, a federal judge issued an injunction preventing commercial logging in the forest. But the Forest Service won an injunction in 2013 to lift it.

Wallace said it’s more important than ever to reduce logging to fight climate change.

“Now that we know so much about climate change and all of the havoc that that is causing our climate and our region and our country and the world as a whole, we need to take drastic action,” Wallace said.

The national park designation could also be a boon for the tourism industry, Wallace said. The change would make Shawnee the nation’s first climate preserve, which would allow for hunting, fishing, trapping and dispersed camping while preserving the natural ecosystem.

Carbondale city officials said during a council meeting last week that the resolution would lead to a multiyear process. The resolution does not change the status of Shawnee National Forest, and feasibility studies and public comment periods would still be needed as the process goes forward, City Manager Gary Williams said. The city will send a letter to the Illinois congressional delegation to start the process. Congress would have to vote to change the designation.

But the resolution also brought criticisms. Several speakers at the meeting asked that the council delay the resolution to discuss benefits and drawbacks. Some said the resolution is too vague and doesn’t specify if the Department of Interior would allow the Sierra Club and other groups that have been working to combat invasive species to continue doing so.

“Fifteen years ago, I would have wholeheartedly supported this proposal. But within the last 15 years, I've seen firsthand how invasive plants, insects and other animals are threatening our native plants and animals,” Barbara McKasson of the Illinois Sierra Club said at the meeting. “The concern with this proposal is it is very vague and does not specifically address the need for management of high-quality natural areas in the forest, which must be managed in order to survive the encroachment of invasive species.”

The Illinois Audubon Society supports the resolution. Wallace said the process is still early and much more needs to be done before the forest could even be considered a national park. He said supporters of the change hope to persuade other municipalities surrounding Shawnee to agree to similar resolutions and ask federal lawmakers to introduce a bill in Congress to change the designation by April 2024.

“It's a significant step because we have none yet, this is our first municipality,” Wallace said. “But we have a long way to go. There's probably 20 municipalities within what's called the purchase area of the Shawnee.”

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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