Shawnee Wilderness Designation Act
Could Harm Southern Illinois
The Shawnee Wilderness Designation Act has recently been in the news. Local politicians are asking the United States Forest Service to review the Shawnee National Forest to see if it fits the criteria for all 280,000 acres to be designated as a Wilderness Area. This sounds like a good idea because a Wilderness Area gains extra protective measures to keep it as wild as possible. However, from an economic and tourism point of view, a designation like this could be financially and recreationally devastating. It is important to understand what changes would likely occur if the entirely of the Shawnee National Forest would become a designated Wilderness area. A Wilderness Area is good, and I have nothing against them, we have a few that should remain protected but to make the entire Shawnee a Wilderness will have significant impacts.
Impact to the Mountain Bike Community
The Shawnee National Forest has recently designated nearly 20 miles of trail for hiking and mountain biking use only. This has been a challenge that has been worked on for many years, more than a decade. The National Forest now accepts mountain biking as a designated user activity. After COVID-19 started, bicycling interests across the nation has significantly increased to the point to where its now hard to find new bicycles because of the high demand for them. The Shawnee National Forest designating mountain biking can bring many new forms of tourism to the region. This means people spending money at local mom and pop stores, restaurants, lodging, grocery stores, gas stations, liquor stores, hotels, and gift shops. This means more money for the small communities that are struggling to pay their bills.
A Designated Wilderness legally prohibits mountain biking. This means that if the entirely of the Shawnee National Forest becomes a wilderness area, the mountain bike trails will close, and mountain biking will be prohibited from the forest. We will effectively tell cycling tourists and visitors to go to some other state with their money and stay out of Illinois. Mountain biking is different than road or Rail-to-Trail biking, it brings about an entirely difference audience. The Shawnee Wilderness Designation Act is a threat to all of the hard work of the mountain bike community and the tourism dollars that it can potentially bring in. Ask the people who live around Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky and Tennessee about how mountain biking helps their local communities!
Impact to the Equestrian Community
The Shawnee National Forest being entirely designated as a wilderness area will also significantly impact the equestrian community. Wagons for example are considered a form of mechanical equipment just like bicycles are. Wagons will not longer be allowed in the Shawnee National Forest. So, all the hard work on the wagon trails out east will be for nothing. Trail maintenance is often needed frequently for horse trails but if the Shawnee is a designated wilderness, chainsaws, wheel barrels and other electrical, gas and mechanical equipment will be prohibited for use. Some wilderness areas close to horseback riding during wetter seasons – the same rules could be fought for and applied to the Shawnee Wilderness as a whole and then equestrians will lose their rights to enjoy the forest all year long. Because many forms of commercial venues cannot happen in wilderness areas such as mule rides and events related, that will also cease to exist.
Impact to the Hunting Community
Some hunters use ATVs with special use permits. In a wilderness area, that will not be possible. Some hunters use carts to help haul out a harvest – anything with a wheel is considered a mechanical equipment and will be prohibited. Turning the Shawnee National Forest into one big designated Wilderness Area could change the favoritism of hunting in the State of Illinois and significantly impact the regional economy. Ask yourself how much your business makes when hunting season occurs and then ask yourself if losing that business will hurt or not. Many roads within the forest often used by hunters will close and no longer be open to vehicles. That means hunters will park farther away and have to remove harvested game by hand. That doesn’t like a great idea to me. One thing for non-hunters to understand is that a lot of hunting programs bring a lot of money to the region, without that money, a lot of features in natural resources in southern Illinois would likely not exist.
Impact to the Events Community
Whether you are hosting a mule ride, an adventure race or even a foot race – in a Designated Wilderness area, those events will no longer be permitted. Why? Because you can not have large groups of people or livestock animals due to the ecological impact that they create in a wilderness area. How many people does the annual Mule Ride bring in? Maybe a few thousand? That will cease to exist. How about all of the running and adventure racing events? No more bike riding events that use the forest either. No more big hiking groups or horseback riding groups. Say goodbye to all of that if the entirety of the Shawnee is designated as a wilderness area.
Impact to the Jeep Community
The legit Jeep Community in the Shawnee National Forest have proven to be considered essential communities within the forest. These communities often conduct maintenance and trash cleanup services that bring in volunteers by the dozens to the hundreds. They ride on forest service roads that are legal to drive on by legal vehicles whether all year long of if only seasonally when they are open. In a Designated Wilderness Area, forest roads within the wilderness will close permanently to any motorized or mechanical traffic. This will effectively end most of the jeep routes that go through the Shawnee National Forest.
Impact to the Federal Employees
Because a lot of functions currently in the National Forest would cease to exist, there would likely not continue to be a need for as many federal employees to manage the Shawnee. An entirety of Shawnee as a wilderness will not create new jobs, it will likely reduce them. So, this means that current federal employees at the Shawnee would likely be reduced. This also means that volunteering to do things will be way more difficult without being able to use motorized tools and equipment. It may become too much of a hassle to volunteer. It could do significant impact to the volunteer community as well. The budget for the National Forest will also likely decrease.
Current Wilderness Rules
See this link for the current regulations concerning Designated Wilderness Areas in the United States.
A Designated Wilderness Area is not entirely bad…
I’m not against wilderness areas. The Shawnee National Forest has several designated wilderness areas that provide the wilderness that we need. We don’t need to turn the entire forest into a wilderness area and lose the many things that are helping to bring revenue to this poverty-stricken region. Having wilderness areas to be protected is a good idea but having nothing but wilderness isn’t economically or financially smart.
What can you do?
I urge you to contact your local politicians and express your concern. More information about who to contact concerning the Shawnee Wilderness Designation Act can be found here.
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Shawn J. Gossman
Shawn is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel, Hiking with Shawn as well as Hiking with Shawn LLC. Shawn hikes, backpacks and visits various forested areas in the Shawnee National Forest, local state parks and other areas promoting outdoor recreational activities to obtain video to show to locals and non-locals alike. Please support Shawn’s efforts by sharing this post and leaving a comment below.