May 26, 2022
A coalition of Illinois environmental, conservation and land management groups have sent a letter asking Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Tammy Duckworth to introduce legislation designating three areas of the Shawnee National Forest as federal Wilderness.
“It’s a natural fit,” said Environmental Law & Policy Center Policy Advocate Tyler Barron. “Illinois has long been a Wilderness champion, and Senator Durbin and Senator Duckworth have proven their dedication to both the environment and economy time and time again. Wilderness designation is a win for the environment, for local communities and for jobs across Southern Illinois.”
Wilderness is the highest level of protection for public, federal land. It is reserved only for the most special of natural places, areas that, in the words of the 1964 Wilderness Act, are “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
Designating Camp Hutchins, Ripple Hollow and the Burke Branch would add approximately 12,000 new acres of Wilderness to the 289,000-acre Shawnee National Forest.
Wilderness designation is a win for the environment, for local communities and for jobs across Southern Illinois.
Wilderness conserves wildlife habitats, watersheds, scenic vistas and forests/grasslands while offering unique hiking, hunting, climbing, fishing, backpacking, birdwatching, and other non-motorized outdoor recreation opportunities – an invaluable part of Illinois’ character and the economic heart of many Southern Illinois communities.
“The Shawnee encompasses a variety of natural settings—from bluffs and barrens, to deep forest and lush wetlands. From east to west, there are different natural experiences to be had, from day hikes on well-traveled trails to hidden gems,” said Rev. Wade Halva, Southern Illinois Outreach Coordinator for Faith in Place. “Protecting more of the Shawnee provides a chance for more Illinoisans and visitors to see, hear and experience its wonderful beauty—and to preserve that beauty for new visitors each year.”
Camp Hutchins would create approximately 20,000 acres of near-contiguous Wilderness because of its proximity to two existing Wilderness areas, Bald Knob and Clear Springs. Large contiguous or near-contiguous tracts of land provide better, more resilient habitats for forest interior songbirds and other native flora and fauna.
Ripple Hollow is roughly 3,500 acres and provides habitat for animals including bobcats, wild turkeys, bald eagles, and beavers.
The roughly 6,000 acres of Burke Branch contain 23 different habitat types and a large diversity of plants and wildlife. It is also home to three endangered plant species – beard-grass, loosestrife and star chickweed – and three Illinois threatened species – golden seal, grass-leaved lily and American ginseng.
“This designation is an opportunity to protect our land and water while also providing fantastic outdoor recreation opportunities to the people of Illinois,” said Illinois Environmental Council Conservation Director Lindsay Keeney. “On the heels of a national effort to protect 30% of our land and water in order to protect biodiversity and curb climate change, this designation solidifies Illinois as a leader in conservation and makes clear that our residents view our natural landscapes as one of our most important resources.”
In addition to the many natural and environmental benefits, Wilderness designation is a proven economic driver in Illinois. Wilderness recreation and passive-use contribute roughly $3.8 billion in wildlife recreation spending to the state’s economy. This spending supports roughly 204,000 jobs and generates nearly $1.6 billion annually in state and local tax revenue.
Private sector land management firms, which aid overstretched state and federal staffs, continue to create good, local jobs within their communities
A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Wilderness found that Wilderness designation reaps $9.4 billion a year – about $85 an acre – in benefits for the American public. These are benefits that stay stable even during economic downturns.
“Wilderness areas are vitally important to diverse ecosystems and the character and economy of southern Illinois,” said Amanda Pankau of Prairie Rivers Network. “With the leadership of Senators Durbin and Duckworth, we can ensure that future generations will experience more of southern Illinois’ natural beauty.”
The groups signing on to the letter are: Faith in Place, the Prairie State Conservation Coalition, Prairie Rivers Network, the Environmental Law & Policy Center, Openlands, the Southern Illinois Prescribed Burn Association, the Illinois Audubon Society, the Illinois Prescribed Fire Council, the Natural Land Institute, the Illinois Environmental Council, Sierra Club Illinois Chapter The Sangamon Valley Group, The Wetlands Initiative and the Delta Institute.