Midwest timber wars revisited

For the first time in nearly three decades, the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois has proposed a commercial timber harvest of mostly native oaks and hickories. And environmental activists whose high-profile fight against logging in the 1990s led to a 17-year moratorium are once again raising alarms.

Lisa Helmig, acting forest supervisor with the Shawnee National Forest, said the plan is rooted in the best available science about how to maintain the keystone oak ecosystem that is native to the Shawnee foothills.  “The oak ecosystem has been in place here in the central hardwood region for 5,000 years,” she said. But Helmig said the ecosystem is at risk due to a lack of natural or man-made disturbances, such as fire, storms and, yes, even logging. Without these disturbances, non-native, shade-tolerant sugar maple and beech trees sprout up and fill in the forest’s midstory, she said.

The activists have filed an objection, based largely on their past experience with timber harvest on the Forest.

The trees that have grown up to replace the harvested oaks and hickories are mostly 28-year-old stands of “undesirable” beeches and maples.  “When you think about how many oaks were here, it’s heart-wrenching,” Wallace said “Had they not cut the oaks, we’d have oaks here,” Stearns added. In addition to the Farview site, in their letter they write that we also returned to the North End Ecological Restoration project logged in Pope County in the late 1990s. “Little to no oak and hickory have been visibly restored.” They cited other examples, as well.

This is the root of their concern: What the Shawnee National Forest’s leadership claims is happening isn’t.

Asked about their concerns, Helmig said that her “gut reaction” is that the Forest Service likely didn’t follow through with what should be a multiphase treatment. Helmig said she’s confident that the Forest Service is committed to seeing (this) project through… “We have a wonderful silviculturist on staff now,” Helmig said. “He’s been here five years and is absolutely fantastic.”

Hopefully we can assume that there has been a science-based determination that ecological integrity requires regenerating some young oaks and hickories.  But implementation unfortunately still boils down to “trust us,” and “we’re different now.”   (But then the Forest evicted the media from the objection meeting, wrongly according to the Washington Office.)

13 thoughts on “Midwest timber wars revisited”

  1. From the FONSI for this 560-acre project:

    The need for action in the Waterfall project area is detailed in the purpose and need section of the EA beginning on page 5. Briefly described, the project area is a combination of oak forest or pine plantations that are succeeding to species more tolerant of shade. Oak and hickory species are not well-represented in the understory and are likely to diminish over time because of shading. The desired mix of forest age classes is not present and this has implications for wildlife. There are forest health problems in part revealed in the amount of dead and dying canopy trees. Inventory data indicates that overstocking in the stands is a principal contributor. The forest floor is shady and lacks the richness, abundance and diversity of a more open oak forest. The acorn food source that is a foundational element of the oak ecosystem could diminish greatly over the next few decades. The Forest Plan however, charts a different course for the oak forest.

    This proposal includes the following actions:
    • Commercial harvest of 485 acres of pine and hardwood forest.
    • Spot treatment with herbicide on 560 acres for management of non-native invasive species and use during stand improvement activities to control undesirable species sprouting.
    • Stand improvement (SI) activities on 546 acres.
    • Pollinator seeding of landings, skid trails, etc., up to 40 acres.
    • Temporary road construction and road reconstruction, decommissioning, and closure device installation.

    The Shawnee’s NEPA docs are here:


  2. USFS set up for failure. Despite years of research from their own R&D, of which the national forest people never use or read, sans fire, i.e., a pre-harvest burn, and then 2 post-harvest burns in the 10 years following harvest, they will regenerate nary an oak or hickory. Ah, but that is Region 9 for you. Just keep doing what does work harder and bigger and maybe it will work.

  3. Jon, I’m honestly not getting this argument. The current people identified a purpose and need. It is argued that there wouldn’t be a problem if folks hadn’t done timber harvest in the 90’s.

    What if we used the same argument out west? We shouldn’t do fuel treatments today because if folks hadn’t been suppressing fires over the last hundred years it wouldn’t be a problem?

    If the trust issue is about future burning treatments, then that is indeed tough because people, funding and political will might be different then. But it sounds like, without some intervention, the oak component will be in trouble.

    • In point of fact, it is argued that the best minds of the Forest Service persistently proclaimed in the 1990s that cutting the large oaks in the Fairview Timber sale and others on the Shawnee would result in oak/hickory regeneration on those sites. They failed in those objectives after squandering several hundred thousand dollars administering the timber sales. Time has shown that the bureaucratic foresters were wildly wrong then.
      The notion that Central Hardwoods forests like the Shawnee should be subjected to the same management practices as conifer forests out west is like treating diabetes with dandruff shampoo. It may sell some shampoo, but does nothing to achieve the objectives. No forest on the planet has ever been logged back to health.

      • I guess “back to health” needs to be defined. In the Sierra Nevada National Forests, thinning projects rule the roost for the last 27 years. I’m sure it is very healthy for the forests to thin out trees which average around 15″ in diameter (without cutting old growth or clearcutting). Also, it could be argued that cutting some of the millions of dead trees in those forests would be considered ‘healthy’.

        • From my perspective it is “forest” which needs to be more clearly defined. When I used that term, I was referring to natural forests where benign neglect has been allowed to proceed long enough to achieve an old-growth or steady-state shifting mosaic condition. Not tree farms or second- or third-growth wood lots. And I am out of my depth talking about anything other than the Central Hardwoods forests where I went to forestry school in the early 1970s and have lived most of my life since. I should not comment on other types of forests elsewhere and apologize for the phrase “no forest on the planet.” I don’t know squat about those other forest types. But I do know that the Society of American Foresters Handbook (the “Bible” in my forestry school days) was filled with conclusions based upon research funded by the timber industry. Years later when I began to question what I had learned in school—because it was not playing out as predicted on the ground—I started looking closely at the methodology of those studies which concluded that clearcuts on steep hillsides were merely mimicking natural events; that wood in streams was bad for fish; that the only way to have more oaks and hickories was to cut all the big oaks and hickories, etc.—and I found that the methodologies were suspect and follow-up studies were non-existent. Those were pre-Internet days, of course, so writing letters by hand to timber industry researchers and using my local library to send off for journals on that new-fangled term “forest ecology” was an onerous task for a guy trying to raise a family and make a living. I have to fall back on the excuse of honest ignorance for not more quickly seeing through self-serving industry/agency propaganda. In this day and information age, however, we can no longer plead ignorance. I know what I have seen transpire in the Shawnee Nation Forest in the past 60+ years. I have walked most stands in the proposed Waterfall timber sale project which kicked off this thread. The problem is not even ignorance; it is greed.

          • We have the forests that we have, and we should focus more on current conditions, instead of blaming the past. Most of us agree that bad logging is, indeed, bad. However, in some parts of the country, there isn’t much controversy over USFS forest management. I continue to feel that clearcutting should only be used as a last resort to improve a particularly sickly piece of ground. Such parcels should always have a hard limit on how big a clearcut can be. Economics and profits should not enter into the decision, being that the parcel’s trees are not lucrative.

            Having worked in some eastern forests, I do understand that ‘highgrading’ probably does occur, where high-value hardwood trees exist. I’m not a fan of that, either. Diversity in those hardwood stands seems like a good thing, to me.

          • An old dead president said, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.” In don’t blame him.
            Past forestry practices in my Central Hardwoods region do not bear the only “blame” for current conditions (loss of soil, loss of native species, passage of time, change in atmospheric carbon dioxide, etc. are incalcuable factors as well); but in my lifetime monitoring my area and beyond, I can attest that what the Forest Service and timber industry touted as “best management practices” repeatedly failed to achieve their stated goals In the past 60 years.
            The land here agrees with me. I listen to the land.
            In the case of the Waterfall project which started this thread, “high grading” is still proposed—only now under the guise of “ecological restoration” and “stewardship”.
            I totally agree that “Diversity in those hardwood stands seems like a good thing.” That is why I oppose proposals like this Waterfall project: they do not increase diversity of native plants; they actually INCREASE the proliferation of invasive exotic species; and they give legitimate ecological restoration a bad name.
            And for people who don’t give a dam! about the land itself (looking at you, fiscal conservatives), they squander copious amounts of tax money that could be better used in “Caring for the land and serving people.”

          • Mr. Fotoware,
            I am interested in finding any site in particular in the central hardwoods region where the successful utilization of clearcut logging can be documented, with evidence showing that it actually improved the forest. Since silviculturists readily reference the best available science, I hope you can understand why I desire this information without any reference to economics. Since economic incentives simply have no place in science, I hope you can understand my interest. Thank you!

  4. It is hard to make someone do something, especially when someone at a higher level doesn’t want to pay for doing it (if that’s what happened here). But there are still some things that could be done differently. For one, the NEPA process has to acknowledge the results of monitoring of past practices, and the effects analysis should recognize the real probability of regeneration occurring (and how that compares to no-action). This should be viewed similarly to mitigation measures, their likelihood of occurring and their effectiveness. I’d like to see forest plans tie future projects to demonstrated success of past actions (that would be “adaptive management”). I’d also suggest that on the Shawnee it should be a higher priority to go back to those stands where regeneration failed and try to restore them first. But of course that wouldn’t help meet their timber volume targets.

  5. Where in the Central Hardwoods has clearcutting actually improved a forest, without economic considerations entering into the equation?


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