The Creation of the Shawnee National Forest 1930-1938

originally titled - Birth of the Shawnee National Forest, 1933-Present

Part I: First Attempt Fails

The idea of a national forest in Southern Illinois had no doubt been thought of and discussed haphazardly by state, county and municipal officials and public-spirited citizens of the region for many years before a movement to establish such an area actually came form.

Those who could remember the days before the entire state had been penetrated by hard-surfaced roads, and large areas had been cleared, probably looked forward to a time when a part of the territory would again revert to its original, forested status. Younger people had looked with envy upon states having national forests, and realized their advantages, as is demonstrated by the fact that Illinois citizens, and particularly those in the northern half of the state, were largely instrumental in opening and popularizing northern Wisconsin and Michigan woods-and-lake areas as a summer playground for the Middle West.

Some individuals were interested in the establishment of a national forest from a commercial, and possibly selfish, point of view, in that they visualized its value in terms of a future supply of timber. This supply, which was been used so much more rapidly than it could be or was grown, was virtually gone, and an eventual and actual timber famine could not be thought impossible. Then too, there were such men as the War Department engineers, who felt that the rapidly eroding areas, which were creating a large sub-marginal territory, should be re-forested.

About 1930, people in Illinois suddenly began to realize that the area in the southern part of the state, known as Little Egypt or the Illinois Ozarks, was topographically and otherwise suited to reforestation purposes, and began writing the Forest Service asking it to consider the establishment of a forest in this territory. Thus the stage was set for promotion of the idea, and promotion of the idea, and promotion actually began at the first meeting of the Central States Forestry Congress held in Indianapolis, Indiana, in December 1930.

At that meeting, Mr. E. W. Tinker, Regional Forester in charge of Region 9, mentioned to Mr. L. E. Sawyer, Extension Forester of Illinois, that he had received several inquiries concerning the establishment of a forest in Illinois, and inquired whether, in Mr. Sawyer's opinion, there was sufficient acreage available for a national forest. Mr. Sawyer assured him that there was, and Mr. Tinker then consented to send a man to make a preliminary examination of the areas.

When Mr. Sawyer returned from Indianapolis, he came to Harrisburg and interviewed Mr. J. E. Whitchurch, Saline County Farm Advisor, and Walter W. Wheatley, President of the Harrisburg Kiwanis Club. In the company of these two men, he made a brief tour of the proposed forest unit south of Harrisburg, and contacted several land owners and business men within this unit in an effort to determine the prevailing attitude of local residents towards the establishment of a forest.

Newspaper comment at that time stated that if units were established, all-weather roads would be constructed, telephone lines would be built, and a fire protection system, consisting of fire breaks, fire lookout towers, and fire fighting equipment would be instituted. The expected influx of recreational visitors, when recreational features of the region were developed, and the resulting indirect revenue for local citizens, was mentioned.

The subject of a national forest for Southern Illinois finally crystallized with the submission of "A Preliminary Report on Illini National Forest Purchase Unite in Jackson, Union, and Alexander Counties, Illinois, including about 304,840 acres, and Shawnee National Forest Purchase Unit in Gallatin, Hardin, Pope and Saline Counties, Illinois, including about 291,392 acres."

This report was complied by Mr. William L. Barker, Jr., of the United States Forest Service, who had spent a week in February, 1931, examining the prospective forest areas. He was accompanied in some of his investigations by Messrs. R. S. Smith, and E. A. Norton, of the Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Illinois. Mr. L. E. Sawyer, Extension Forester, accompanied Mr. Barker on all of his examinations.

Mr. Barker's report stated that purchase of these units would be permitted by the Weeks Law, Act of March 1, 1911, and Sect. 6 of the Clark-McNary Law, Act of June 7, 1924, and that an enabling act would be introduced in the current session of the State legislature, probably by M. Z. Black of Champaign, Illinois, and that opposition from any source did not appear probably. He stated that Director of Conservation, R. B. Bradford, and the Assistant Director, E. E . Duvall, had voiced their approval of the plan.

Mr. Barker's report stated that the units have three very definite purposes, as follows:

  1. Prevention of erosion.
  2. Timber production.
  3. Demonstrational areas.

In connection with prevention of erosion Mr. Barker's report pointed out that the Illini Unit was bounded by the Mississippi River for about seven miles at the southwest corner, that the Shawnee was bounded on the east and south by the Ohio River for about 25 miles, and that the erosion problem was very serious and affected farm lands by washing away the productive top-soil, making the land too rough to cultivate, and by washing non-productive sub-soil on to the productive farm soil adjoining the unit, thus decreasing its productivity.

It also stated that much of this washed soil went into the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and contributed largely to the filling and consequent flooding of these streams. As a result of this erosion problem many large and expensive drainage ditches had been built through the bottom land, many of which had been abandoned on account of the cost of keeping them open as compared with the value of the crop which they made possible. Others were being abandoned and were only partly effective. The drainage ditch assessment had constituted a heavy burden on the farmers and had contributed to increasing tax delinquency.

With reference to timber production the report noted that the soil had a high capacity for producing wood crops, and that this was the only crop that could be produced continuously at a profit.

The need for demonstration of correct forestry practice in methods of timber culture, prevention of erosion, management of wood lots, and proper correlation of timber and agricultural crop management for the benefit of the state, private corporations and individuals, was set out.

In discussing the location and accessibility of the proposed area, mention was made of the paved highways and railroads which were in proximity to, and in some cases intersected, parts of the unit. This is was in contrast to the situation in many northern and western forests where large areas of the national forest land are uninhabited, and have few, if any paved highways, railroads, or even low standard dirt roads.

At the same time the report noted the necessity of additional roads for complete fire protection and also the importance of relocating and graveling many of the existing dirt roads, thus forecasting the extensive road construction program which was later to constitute the major project on the Shawnee during the first two or three years of its existence.

The surface of the proposed area was described as being irregular, bearing from absolute bottom land to rolling benches and rough, sometimes rocky, precipitous hills. The scarcity of water was noted, there being less than 900 acres of water in the almost 600,000 acres covered in the proposed area.

The soils of the proposed area were divided into four classes, including upland, stony slopes, bottom land, and farm soil, upland predominating. It was noted that the possibility of farming, except on 12 percent of the total area, was negligible, and that the area that was suitable for farming was found chiefly in the uplands in irregular and more or less inaccessible patches were crop production and marketing roads would be expensive, if not entirely prohibitive.

The general history of the unit showed that the region had been farmed for 100 years, and that much of the soil was worn out and beyond reclamation as farm soil. Many farms had been abandoned on account of worn-out soil and erosion, and a large percentage of these were on soil which should not have been cleared of timber at all. The entire area had been logged from one to ten times, and nearly all of the original timber had been removed and replaced by second growth where the land was not completely cleared for farming. Many abandoned farms were at that time being reforested naturally.

Small coal mines, developed by farmers within the unit, and existence of large shaft or strip mines in the territory adjacent to the unit, indicated the presence of small deposits throughout the area.

The report gave considerable information on the stand and cover types to be found in area. It was noted that small scale lumbering had been going on for some time and was especially wide spread in the year of the report, due to the need for farmers to realize cash from all possible sources. Two products included a very few saw logs, much mining material such as props, ties, lagging and considerable fruit basket veneer logs, and posts. Farming included corn, grains, and hay and peach, apple, and pear orchards.

The report showed that the wild game in the area had been severely depleted, but that suitable areas for quail, pheasants, prairie chickens, wild turkeys, ducks and geese on the river, and deer and bear in the hills, existed and that there was also a possibility of part of the region being adapted to the production of fur-bearing animals.

The report stated that the general sentiment of the local people in regard to establishment of a national forest appear at that time to be indifferent, since most of them had not considered the question. The few State Department men, University of Illinois timber and soil specialists, state and federal legislators, and private foresters who had given the problem any thought were in favor of such a national forest.

The report concludes with technical information on assessed valuations, tax reversion, tax delinquency, etc., and with the recommendation that if the State passed a satisfactory enabling act, the units be established.

Mr. Barker's report went to the Forester at Washington in March 1931. After analyzing the report and existing economic conditions, the Forester disapproved the recommendation. He stated that there were no funds available for the purchase of any lands within the state, and that it was not the policy to establish forests on areas such as we have in the southern part of Illinois. Thus far, forests were operating chiefly in mountainous parts of the eastern and western sections of the United States, and in the denuded areas of the north.

NEXT: Part II: Second Attempt Succeeds

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Created July 13, 1996 by Jon Musgrave