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‘Shawnee Showdown’ details how activists stopped the clearcutting of an Illinois forest

During the late 1980s and the 1990s, a small dedicated group of activists fought on the ground and in the courts to stop clearcutting and oil and gas drilling in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois.
Orin Langelle
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During the late 1980s and the 1990s, a small group of activists fought on the ground and in the courts to stop clearcutting and oil and gas drilling in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois.

Three decades ago, the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois was the focus of fierce battles over commercial logging on public lands.

“Activists were asking questions about public lands across the country,” said Cade Bursell, a professor of cinema at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, whose documentary “Shawnee Showdown: Keep the Forest Standing” explores the history. “The Shawnee National Forest was being hit by clear-cut after clear-cut across the forest, and so [protesters] gathered together and this one particular place seemed to be the galvanizing point.”

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Emily Woodbury
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St. Louis Public Radio
On Day 77 of the 79-day Shawnee National Forest occupation, his 30th birthday, John Wallace was arrested. U.S. Forest Service officers used an acetylene torch to remove Wallace from the log skidder that he’d attached himself to with a bike lock.

The place was called the Fairview timber sale, and for 79 days in the summer of 1990, activists occupied the site — using their bodies to block the logging equipment and using legal strategies to challenge the harvesting of the lumber in court.

“The activists really taught themselves how to do this litigation — they went into legal libraries and did the research that needed to happen,” Bursell said. “I was so impressed by that.”

Tom Buchele, a lawyer for Earthrise Law Center handling the case pro bono, filed suit over the U.S. Forest Service plan for the site. He also litigated using the Migratory Bird Act.

“That was the first time that anyone had gone after a Forest Service plan or [used] the Migratory Bird Act, so it was really a groundbreaking case,” Bursell said.

The activists involved in the Shawnee showdown were successful. They managed to stop commercial logging in the forest for 17 years.

“So much of what has happened in the Shawnee is groundbreaking,” said environmentalist John Wallace, who was a key figure during the Shawnee National Forest occupation.

In 2013, the Forest Service won a motion to lift the injunction. Currently, thousands of acres at the Shawnee National Forest are scheduled for logging operations.

“That's really heartbreaking, after all that work,” Bursell said.

Hear about the 'Shawnee Showdown' film

Wallace, still active in protecting the forest today, has not given up hope. He is leading the charge to transfer the Shawnee National Forest out of U.S. Department of Agriculture control and into the hands of the U.S. Department of the Interior. His proposal includes designating the forest as the nation’s first climate preserve.

“We have one mechanism on land, on this whole planet, that is the most efficient and the most effective way to take carbon out of the atmosphere than has ever been discovered — and it's free,” Wallace said. “It's called forests.”

Wallace, who is featured in “Shawnee Showdown,” joined host Sarah Fenske and Bursell on St. Louis on the Air on Wednesday to discuss the lessons learned from the fight to save Shawnee — and how the fight continues today.

“Endless pressure endlessly applied is one of the best recommendations I have,” Wallace said. “Don't give up. Keep pushing.”

Related Events

What: “Shawnee Showdown: Keep the Forest Standing” at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale
When: 6:30 p.m. April 1
Where: EFFY 2022 Online

What: “Shawnee Showdown: Keep the Forest Standing” panel discussion featuring environmental activists John Wallace and Steve Taylor
When: 8 p.m. April 1
Where: EFFY 2022 Online

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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