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Wednesday, May 30, 2007 02:32 pm

Wild thing

Illinois Audubon acts to protect an ecological treasure, but there's much more to do.

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PHOTO BY C.D. STELZER
Untitled Document To call it the “Showdown at Lusk Creek Wilderness” would be an exaggeration; the scene would be better described as an informal negotiation. On this Saturday afternoon in May, an invisible line is being drawn across a muddy road in Pope County. On one side stands John Wallace, binoculars draped around his neck, the bill of his Illinois Audubon Society baseball cap tilted skyward. His counterparts — a virtual cavalry — outnumber him by more than 10 to one. Beneath the broad brims of their cowboy hats, the horsemen sit high in their saddles, gripping their reins and eyeing Wallace as he waves an unfurled Shawnee National Forest map like a warning flag. Wallace explains that horseback riding is prohibited on the property beyond a nearby gate. He advises the riders to instead use a designated U.S. Forest Service trail. The equestrians accede to his recommendation, then do an about-face and gallop away. Score one for the birders. If Wallace and his allies have their way, the road on which this confrontation took place will eventually disappear, replaced by an uninterrupted natural landscape. The goal is to limit access to this remote locale in southeastern Illinois and thereby protect its unique wilderness character. To that end, the Illinois Audubon Society, which is independent from the national organization, sealed a deal last month to buy the land on the other side of the gate that Wallace so vigilantly guarded. The 56-acre parcel sits in the middle of the 6,850-acre Lusk Creek Wilderness, the largest of seven federally protected areas in the Shawnee National Forest of southern Illinois. When Illinois Audubon announced the purchase in April, a couple of downstate dailies reported the news, but few accolades have followed. Instead, the Forest Service has taken a neutral position, and the district’s congressman has chosen to remain reticent on the issue. The muted response even extends into the ranks of Illinois Audubon itself; one member of the group’s Shawnee Chapter worries that publicity would rekindle animosity between conservationists and equestrian users of the forest. But Wallace, an Illinois Audubon board member, doesn’t hesitate when asked why preservation of this land is so important. “If you don’t have habitat,” he says, “you don’t have birds.”

Wallace and fellow board member Terri Treacy helped broker the deal after a Forest Service official in Harrisburg informed Treacy last summer that the tract was for sale. She immediately recognized the significance of the property. “I drove directly from the Forest Service office to Mike Maynard’s,” Treacy says, referring to the then-owner. When Treacy arrived at his residence, near Eddyville, she told Maynard: “We want to buy your land.”
But it wasn’t quite that simple. Maynard had partners, and the other Illinois Audubon board members needed to be convinced of the usefulness of the purchase. The land buy, including obtaining the mineral rights, took months to finalize and ultimately cost the organization more than $270,000, or about $4,850 an acre. Though the price was more than market value, Wallace and Treacy still consider it an invaluable investment. Money for the purchase came from donations and bequests earmarked for land acquisition. Approximately half of the 56 acres is open and in need of reforestation, Wallace says. At some future date, he says, Illinois Audubon may sell the land to the U.S. Forest Service, which is better equipped and funded to carry out the huge job of reclaiming the tract’s inherent wilderness characteristics. By all accounts, Lusk Creek and its environs are worthy of protection. Scores of bird species share this fragile but diverse ecosystem with a range of unusual flora and fauna, including some plants and animals that are recognized as threatened or endangered in this state. The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission first set aside 125 acres within the current wilderness in 1970. Congress granted wilderness status in 1990 to the Lusk Creek area, and the National Park Service has designated Lusk Creek Canyon a National Natural Landmark. The stream itself is a candidate for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Reached at his office in Springfield, Illinois Audubon Society executive director Tom Clay says that he has confidence in the ability of the Forest Service to manage the additional 56-acre tract should the organization decide to hand it over. The group currently owns 11 wildlife sanctuaries; the 500-acre War Bluff Valley Sanctuary, located in Pope County and managed by the Shawnee chapter, accounts for half of the total acreage managed by Illinois Audubon. The organization has transferred more than 2,000 additional acres over to the state, but this is the first time the group has considered selling land to the Forest Service.  “If we retain ownership or if we sell it to the federal government, that road will be closed and that will be helping the true character of the wilderness area,” Clay says. “The bottom line is, it’s not going to be developed.”
But Jeff Seefeldt, a spokesman for the Forest Service in Harrisburg, says that the agency doesn’t have the authority to close the Pope County road or buy the property. That decision, he says, rests with the U.S. Congress, which granted Lusk Creek wilderness status in the first place. Gaining congressional approval for a road closure and 56 acres of additional wilderness may be more difficult in 2007, however, than getting thousands of acres set aside was in 1990. That’s because U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, the Republican congressman who now represents the 19th District, isn’t considered much of a friend of the environment. (He received a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group that monitors the voting records of elected officials.) Doug Bugger, deputy press secretary for Shimkus, simply says that the congressman is not taking a position on the issue. Wallace, not surprisingly, voices a stronger opinion: “You’d be hard pressed to find another 56 acres more important ecologically than this tract,” says Wallace. “What’s so important in habitat is diversity, and this piece has an incredible amount of diversity.”

On this spring day, Wallace has driven more than an hour east of his home in Carbondale to participate in the Illinois spring bird count. After Wallace parks his pickup truck, he and his wife, Karen Frailey, don rubber Wellingtons and walk the last half-mile of muddy road. Beyond the property gate, their hike takes them through upland forests and across hot, dry, rocky bluffs, where prickly pear cactus vies for space with a variety of ferns, mosses, and lichens. Later they take a break in the shade of one of the shelter caves beneath the bluffs, admiring the fragile beauty of French’s shooting star, a rare wildflower that grows here. Then they venture down into the floodplain, listening intently to the calls of songbirds and scanning the treetops with their binoculars for flashes of telltale color. The clear waters of the creek itself provide habitat for an array of aquatic life, including the state-threatened least brook lamprey and a state-endangered amphipod. Over the course of the next few hours, Wallace and Frailey confirm, by means of sight or sound, the presence of 37 bird species within the new sanctuary. Their long list includes varieties of meadowlarks, swallows, and woodpeckers. There are birds with names attached to faraway places: the Nashville warbler, the Louisiana water thrush, the Baltimore oriole. Other monikers describe vibrant plumage: red-breasted grosbeak, ruby-throated hummingbird, yellow-rumped warbler. Listening to a chorus of songbirds on a warm May afternoon, a visitor to this bucolic setting could be lulled into believing that all is well here, but that is not the case. Besides being a tranquil pastime, the state bird count serves another purpose. Wallace, Frailey, and their compatriots elsewhere across the state are also monitoring the pulse of the overall environment. Results are compiled, county by county, and forwarded to Springfield for tabulation. The annual checkup helps ornithologists and other scientists spot trends in bird populations. “Birds are one of the barometers that measure ecosystem health,” Wallace says. “It’s the same reason that the miners used to take the canaries down into the coal mines. As soon as the environment in the mine changed, the canaries would sense it and get sick and die. That would alert the miners that it wasn’t safe to remain. We’re able to use birds today to tell us some of the same messages about some of our habitats.”
Wallace notes that studies have shown marked declines in the numbers of migratory neotropical songbirds over last 40 years. Some birds have dropped off the radar. For example, though they verified the presence of more than three dozen species on the 56 acres, Wallace and his wife failed to see or hear a single Swainson’s warbler, a songbird categorized as threatened in Illinois. Scientists often attribute such declines to forest fragmentation.
Songbirds such as Swainson’s warbler, which flock to southern Illinois in the spring from Mexico and Central America, need vast woodlands in which to breed — but their arboreal nesting sites have been falling to the axe and plow since the late 18th century, when European settlers began crossing the Ohio River at Golconda on Lusk’s Ferry. Maj. James Lusk, the Revolutionary War veteran for whom the creek is named, originated the ferry service in 1798. Indeed, merchant John James Audubon, the artist and naturalist for whom the state and national groups are named, may have crossed on the ferry in the early 19th century during one of his business trips between his home in Henderson, Ky., and Ste. Genevieve, Mo. By the time the Forest Service intervened, in the 1930s, the forests and swamps that Audubon once traversed were almost gone. The agency began acquiring land piecemeal from destitute farmers who had succumbed to the Great Depression. The federal government also implemented ambitious reforestation and erosion-control projects, using workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal programs. Though the Shawnee boundaries now contain more than 830,000 acres in the 10 southernmost counties in the state, most of the land remains under private ownership. Only about one-third of the acreage, or about 277,000 acres, is owned by the Forest Service, which ranks Illinois 48th among the states for the amount of public land set aside. As a result, the forest map looks like a lopsided green-and-white checkerboard with twice as many white squares as green. When the map is next revised, however, there will be one less white block in the middle of the Lusk Creek Wilderness. Wallace sees the slight change as a move in the right direction. “We have to stop compromising the natural world away and start protecting and restoring the natural integrity of the land,” he says. “What’s so important to remember is, there are lots of 56-acre parcels. We have to start somewhere.”

From a wilderness perspective, Pope County is a good place to start nudging nature down the path to recovery. The county has a human population of less than 4,500 and represents the greenest section on the forest map. Nearly one-third of the public lands in the Shawnee lie within its boundaries. Despite its remote location and rugged topography, or perhaps because of them, the county has often been the center of controversy over forest-related issues. Wallace’s abortive skirmish with the horsemen on the muddy road is a footnote to that contentious history. For decades the Shawnee National Forest has been a battleground for competing interests. That’s because the Forest Service is required under federal law to manage public lands for groups of users who often find themselves at odds. Since the late 1980s, conflicts over timber cutting have periodically arisen between local environmentalists and commercial loggers. More recently a feud developed between wilderness advocates and campground operators who offer trail rides through the forest. After years of litigation, a truce came about two years ago, when a federal judge helped negotiate a compromise restricting some equestrian use. As a part of the settlement, the commercial trail-ride operators must now purchase use permits from the Forest Service and limit their rides to designated trails. They are also prohibited from entering wilderness areas in groups of more than 10 people. The trails are also off-limits during the winter months and after heavy rains. “Equestrian use has become an industry down there [Pope County], and industrial exploitation is the biggest threat that our natural areas face,” Wallace says. “I don’t have opposition to equestrian use per se — I like to ride a horse — but these campgrounds have brought in so many more equestrians than have historically used the Shawnee that now it needs to be controlled and restricted.”
Wallace has science on his side. Both state and federal studies have concluded that the burgeoning horse traffic has worsened erosion and caused other problems in the Lusk Creek Wilderness. But Dick Manders, owner of the Bear Branch Horse Resort in Eddyville, disagrees. Though he acknowledges that some trails adjacent to the stream needed to be moved, he blames most of the erosion problem on Lusk Creek itself and its tributaries. “There’s a 400-foot drop from where it [Lusk Creek] starts to where it empties into the Ohio,” says Manders, who is a director of the Shawnee Trail Conservancy, a group that supports the trail operators. After a big rain, he says, “all the hills around that area drain into Lusk Creek, and it becomes like a big sewer. That’s where the erosion comes from. It has nothing to do with horses.”
Manders also disputes the logic of limiting the number of riders in a group. Though he says that his operation has never done so, other outfitters have dispatched as many as 100 horses on a single trail ride. He reserves judgment on those past decisions, preferring to ask this hypothetical question: “Say you were camping out there and were looking for peace and serenity. Would you rather have 10 people go by every 10 minutes for a long time, or would you rather have all 100 ride past you in 12 or 15 minutes?” The bottom line, says Manders, is that “the environmentalists won’t be happy until nobody goes in the forest.”
Wallace sees that sort of argument as one of the justifications for Illinois Audubon’s purchase of the 56-acre parcel. “It very well could have been developed into a commercial equestrian enterprise,” he says. “You have to carefully scrutinize private profit on public land, because the National Forest is to be managed for the best use, for the most people, for the longest amount of time.”
At 47 years of age, Wallace is a veteran of many environmental battles. In 1990, for example, he locked his neck to a log skidder with a U-shaped bicycle lock in an effort to stop a timber sale. It took hours for forest rangers, using a blowtorch, to cut him loose. The next year, law-enforcement authorities arrested Wallace and 12 others for blockading six logging trucks on a highway near Jonesboro, Ill. “I’m proud of my past,” Wallace says. “To be honest, I may have to do that again. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had timber sales down here.”
From 1991 to 2005, Wallace taught at Southern Illinois University’s Touch of Nature Environmental Center. Nowadays he performs a one-man show based on the life of conservationist John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. With his bushy white beard, Wallace looks as if he’s is in character even when he’s offstage. His favorite Muir quotation is this one: “In God’s wilderness lies the hope of the world.”
Standing on the banks of Lusk Creek, Wallace looks downstream, contemplating his past and future. He has lived in southern Illinois all his life and has spent much of that time defending its natural assets. “I went to high school with [Rep.] John Shimkus,” he says. “I keep telling [wife] Karen, I need to talk to this guy.”
In the background, birds sing as Lusk Creek riffles its way to the Ohio.
C.D. Stelzer is a former staff writer for the Riverfront Times, in St. Louis, and regular contributor to Illinois Times. His story about the mysterious death of bees was published in our April 26 edition.
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