May 18, 2023

Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law Blog

Shawnee National Park Campaign Builds, some prefer existing National Forest designation - Matthew Cardinale


Shawnee National Park Campaign Builds, some prefer existing National Forest designation

By Matthew Charles Cardinale LLM


This blog post examines the question of whether National Park designation is always the most desirable federal public land designation; or whether in some cases, there are compelling reasons for at least certain stakeholders to prefer a “lower” designation, such as National Forest?This blog post uses the Shawnee National Forest to illustrate the complexities of this question and asserts that there are compelling reasons some might prefer a lower designation, although the answer to whether the concerns underlying those reasons are founded in reality is more complicated.




In southern Illinois, a grassroots campaign is building momentum to ask U.S. Congress to change the designation of the existing Shawnee National Forest to a National Park & Climate Preserve.National Park status would seem to be an instant upgrade for the forest and for the State of Illinois, which currently has no national park, and would likely boost tourism to the area.


If Congress approves this change, the National Park & Climate Preserve would be the first “Climate Preserve” in the U.S.It is a new concept for preserving land where forests grow as intact ecosystems, free from CO2-releasing activities such as logging, mining, and drilling, according to a handout obtained by the author of this post. [1]


The handout also states that “[t]his ‘preforestation’ approach encourages carbon sequestration and storage, helping to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels, thereby reducing climate change, while continuing to provide ample recreational activities”.


The Shawnee National Park proposal has attracted the support and attention of the City of Carbondale, which late last year passed a resolution in support of the proposed Shawnee National Park, as well as of the local tourism bureau and some local advocates. [2]


But interestingly, the local chapter of the Sierra Club has spoken out against the designation because they believe that the U.S. Forest Service would do a better job than the Department of the Interior in addressing invasive species. [3]


Meanwhile, other rural cities in the areas surrounding the Shawnee National Forest are expected to potentially reject passing such as a resolution, according to a recent report by WSIL television news. [4]


“Are we willing to give up the Shawnee as we know it?With the free access we have and the businesses who depend on it, to pay fees to enter what we have now for free, to be told where we can and what we can’t do in the area we have now for free?” Justin Lawrence asked at a Harrisburg City Council meeting.


This blog post will explore the case of the Shawnee National Forest and will examine whether, perhaps counterintuitively, maintaining National Forest status might be preferable to a National Park status.I initially expected that the local environmental advocates, who have been advocating for the preservation of the forest itself for decades, have a compelling case to share.







“Spanning 289,000 acres, Shawnee National Forest is nestled in Southern Illinois between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers”, according to the Forest Service’s website. [5]


The western border of the sprawling park comes near or all the way up to the Mississippi River, which is the western border of the State of Illinois that it shares with the State of Missouri.


Shawnee National Forest includes East Cape Girardeau in Illinois, which is across the river from Missouri’s Cape Girardeau.


The Forest Service also notes that the National Forest “features strikingly beautiful oak-hickory forests, flourishing wetlands, lush canyons, razorback ridges and unique geological features”, and that a “rare convergence of six natural ecological regions results in a diversity of plant and animal species.”


Nearly one million people visit the Forest annually.According to the Forest Service, it “serves as a retreat to Americans living in urban areas; more than 30 U.S. cities are within a six-hour drive”.




The Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, administers the National Forest System, comprising some 191 million acres of land.Most of the National Forest System is concentrated in the Western U.S. and Alaska.


National Forests are administered under the National Forest Management Act, a federal statute which borrows from the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act “in their emphasis on striking a balance in land use planning among the competing values of recreation, grazing, timber, watershed protection, wildlife and fish, and wilderness”, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. [6]


They thus, as famously observed, ‘are not parks.’” USDOJ notes.

“For historical reasons, the statutorily sanctioned timber and grazing uses of these lands have resulted not only in the expectation by ranchers and the timber industry that these uses will continue unabated, but similar expectations in communities whose livelihood depends on the persistence of these uses.At the same time, the National Forests and the Public Lands represent significant, and in some cases, the only large scale refuges for certain wildlife, and have nationally recognized ecological significance.Recreational uses may conflict with both of the above interests, and there may be conflict within the neighboring community between the economic value of consumptive and recreational uses and preservation values”, states the USDOJ.


As noted above, the National Park Service (NPS), instead, is part of the Department of the Interior.


On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act that mandated the agency “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”.


Thus, NPS’s mission, at least broadly, is more about preservation, while the Forest Service’s mission is to balance and sustain multiple uses, several of them extractive in nature.




Multiple parties have raised concerns about the change to national park statues.


However, according to proponents of the Shawnee National Park and Climate Preserve, many of the concerns that have been raised by various stakeholders are unfounded, as stated in a “Myth Busters” handout obtained by this author. [7]


For example, some stakeholders have been concerned about not being able to hunt on National Park Service (NPS) managed land.


However, the Myth Busters handout notes that “51 million acres managed by NPS are open to hunting, representing 60% of the total NPS managed land.There are 75 different areas managed by NPS that permit hunting.”


Others have raised concerns that they would not be able to ride their horse in the Shawnee if it were to become a national park.


However, many NPS units allow horseback riding, including in national parks and preserves, the document states.


Others have raised concerns about the possibility that the NPS will charge entrance fees.


However, only 25 percent of NPS managed properties charge entrance fees: that is, only 109 of the current 423 NPS managed properties.


Still further, some stakeholders have raised concerns about possible other changes to recreational access to Shawnee, such as foot traffic, dog walking, rock climbing, bicycling, mountain biking, boating, fishing, backpacking, backcountry and developed camping, geocaching, and foraging for mushrooms and fruits.


However, again, most access will likely remain the same, as these are all common uses in other NPS managed lands.


Generally, it is accurate to say that a change in management could result in a changes in permitted uses; however, it is equally accurate to say that keeping the same management–that is, in the hands of the Forest Service–could also result in similar changes.


The Forest Service itself, in its multi-use mission, is constantly revisiting and reevaluating its permitted uses; and the recent trend among the Forest Service has been to discontinue permitted uses by industries that interfere with the goals of preservation overall, pristine wilderness in some areas, and sustainable use in others.


In other words, both sides are correct.Stakeholders are correct that changes are possible; and proponents of the National Park are correct that the changes that stakeholders see as possible, are also unlikely.Unlikely means less than likely, but still possible.


“While there may be some proposed minor adjustments of regulations, users will have ample opportunity to provide input on any changes.There is no effort underway to change recreational access on the Shawnee,” the document states.


Opponents have also raised the concern of the possibility of eminent domain of some private parcels that are interspersed with Shawnee National Forest lands, within the boundaries of the Forest.


That is, there are many private homes and other private properties checkerboarding the National Forest lands.


However, NPS manages many public lands with fragmented ownership and containing private holdings within their borders.Therefore, eminent domain is not necessary for NPS to take over management of Shawnee.


Finally, proponents state that NPS has a 261 page “Heartland Invasive Plant Management Plan” that it will use to address invasive species; and that it would be required to create a management plan for Shawnee, which would address such things like invasive species, and which would be subject to public input through the Federal Register notice and comment process.


In conclusion, there are compelling reasons on both sides.The bright way to look at it is to say that Shawnee has at least two good options - that’s a good problem to have.


The answer–as to whether the proposed change would result in a decrease in available recreational uses–is maybe.


Proponents do not explain how a climate preserve could be carved out of a checkerboard forest without reducing the range of permitted uses at least in the climate preserve areas.


The reality is that some changes are likely, but it is not clear that they will be widespread.


And the changes have less to do with the underlying legally defined mission of either agency–whether NPS or the Forest Service–but instead, the extent to which each agency takes its mission to heart, which in turn relates back to the political partisan ideology of the President and Administration; how they interpret their mission with respect to the specific facts of each park or forest; and how stakeholders shape and define the public input received by each agency.



In conclusion, first, I believe that the discussion about the proposal for Shawnee National Forest to become a national park should be guided by the pros and the cons of each alternative, not disproportionately by the perceived prestige or cultural status of a National Park.


Second, the discussion should note the political realities that are a major driver of the contextual background here.Consideration of alternatives needs to include the likelihood of changes in administrations that impact the priorities of each agency, especially with respect to environmental protection.


Finally, I do believe that advocates have raised reasonable and non-frivolous concerns, although neither side has an obvious advantage.


The people of Illinois are appropriately voicing their concerns to local lawmakers and to Congress, based on what they think is best for Illinois.This means determining what they think will likely result in the best outcomes, across all the factors raised, given the multipotentiality for how either agency will act.


[1] Shawnee National Park & Climate Preserve handout.

[3] that National Forests are under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and National Parks are under the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service.



[7] “Myth Busters” handout