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Thursday, Oct. 7, 2004 11:54 am

Protect Illinois wilderness


A green carpet of moss at the campground welcomed the two of us to the trailhead. We crossed a dry creek bed and followed the sign for the White Pine Trail. Past a green swamp, then up easy slopes, a cool September breeze followed us into the Shawnee National Forest. A mile later, our trail forked, and we took the Hutchins Creek Spur, which followed narrow ridge tops from where we looked down on trees in the ravines below. These are the Ozark Hills of Illinois. Unschooled as naturalists, we tried to notice things anyway. A huge oak had fallen, exposing most of its roots to the air, but the leaves were still green. Woodpeckers had wreaked havoc on a dead snag. Besides the oaks, hickories, and maples we identified sumac, sassafras, beech, and lots of poison ivy. We noticed, too, that conversation takes on a different quality in the quiet of the woods. Human beings connect more easily this close to God.

We hiked in the area known as Camp Hutchins, a 2,967-acre tract on the western edge of the Shawnee near the town of Wolf Lake, 195 miles south of Springfield. Camp Hutchins is wilderness but not yet Wilderness, so far unprotected by the Wilderness Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson 40 years ago. The law defines wilderness as having "primeval character and influence," as a place where "man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Official wilderness designation prohibits all commercial activity, including construction, road-building, logging, and drilling. The Illinois Wilderness Action Network (see illinoiswilderness.org), led by the Sierra Club, is working to win from Congress this highest level of protection for Camp Hutchins and two other areas of the Shawnee National Forest -- Ripple Hollow and Burke Branch. The three areas, totaling 13,572 acres, would join together the 29,266 acres of the Shawnee already protected by the wilderness designation.

Though organized opposition is seemingly sparse, these areas have been passed over for protection by the U.S. Forest Service so many times that it makes us wonder whether somebody wants two-by-fours out of these trees or a new playground for four-wheelers. The Bush administration has been "at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the very idea of wilderness," according to the New York Times. The administration has initiated few new wilderness proposals on its own, and Interior Secretary Gale Norton last year renounced her office's authority to recommend to Congress additional lands for federal protection. Also last year, the Bush administration proposed gutting the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, adopted by President Bill Clinton to prevent the construction of most new roads -- thus stopping new logging -- in previously identified roadless areas. This White House has demonstrated that it is no friend of forests, even as the John Kerry Web site promises that Kerry will "ensure that special, remote areas of our national forests that include old growth and other unique resources are protected and off limits to logging."

It may be a stretch to say that a vote for Kerry is a vote for the cerulean warblers and scarlet tanagers of the Shawnee National Forest. These birds need large blocks of forest habitat rather than small pieces, and a Camp Hutchins wilderness designation would join adjacent protected areas for 20,000 acres of unfragmented forest. The arguments seem so compelling that the area could win protection even under Bush. The struggle has been going on since at least 1975, when the Sangamon Wilderness Group of Sangamon State University published a 200-page study proposing the entire Hutchins Creek area as wilderness. But in 1977 the Forest Service omitted Camp Hutchins from its review of roadless areas "for unknown reasons," according to wilderness advocates. In 1986 the Forest Service named Camp Hutchins an "ecological study area," still a step down from a "wilderness study area" and not enough to get it included in Congressman Glen Poshard's Illinois Wilderness Act, which was signed into law by the first President Bush on Nov. 28, 1990. In the Forest Service's 1992 "amended plan," the agency noted the many attributes of Camp Hutchins and said "there is no question of the area's quality." But then the Forest Service said it couldn't recommend Camp Hutchins as a wilderness-study area because the public was not notified that that recommendation would be under consideration. The Illinois Wilderness Action Network awaits the next multiyear Shawnee National Forest management plan, due in December, to learn whether the Forest Service will finally recommend protection for Camp Hutchins, Ripple Hollow, and Burke Branch.

Write your congressman -- or, better, go there and pray. After tramping three miles through the forest, we saw open sky ahead. Soon we were looking down on Hutchins Creek, which has been proposed for National Wild and Scenic River status. It was scenic, but its shallow quiet pools hardly seemed wild, until we noticed something rarely seen in Illinois. I'd read that 70 percent of this stream's watershed is forested. The water was transparent; we could see clear to the bottom. That's wild.

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