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Protecting Wilderness in the...East?
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The Planet
Protecting Wilderness in the ... East?

By Sarah Wootton

Mention wilderness and most people don't think of Illinois, New Hampshire or Vermont. Club activists explain why they should.

Illinois WildernessThe Shawnee National Forest, in the southern tip of Illinois where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet, is home to 25,638 acres of wilderness in seven areas. Scarlet and summer tanagers, neo-tropical migratory birds, need large blocks of interior forest for breeding - they nest in the Shawnee. Red-shouldered hawks, an Illinois threatened species, and pileated woodpeckers make holes in the Shawnee's large trees for their nests. And Indiana bats, an Illinois and federally listed endangered species, and luna moths rely on the Shawnee for habitat.

Numerous plants depend on the Shawnee's varying terrain - an oasis in a state that is known for its agricultural fields. Drought-resistant plants like red cedar, farkleberry and blackjack oak line the sandstone ledges; prickly pear cacti dot the forest and cinnamon and royal ferns and sphagnum moss grow in the mesic barren. But, ask a native Illinoisan what wilderness the state has and you're likely to see a puzzled look.

"Most people in Illinois don't even realize the state has any wilderness. The closest wilderness to Chicago, the most populous area in the state, is seven and a half hours away," said Douglas Chien, conservation organizer for the Illinois Chapter.

Not only does Illinois have designated wilderness, but Chien and other wilderness advocates would like to see 11,000 more acres - all in the Shawnee - protected.

While most of the Club's wilderness campaigns are in the West, Illinois is just one of a number of Eastern states where activists are pressing for greater protection of wildlands.

There are approximately 80,105 acres in Vermont that wilderness fans would like to see protected. Over the summer, at a farmer's market, Club volunteers shared a busy table with the Northeast Organic Farming Association, which attracted passersby with an offer of a bucket of snap peas for only one dollar. At a music festival, Mr. Oke's Magical Vermont Get Together, Sierra Club volunteers spoke with dozens of people - amid solar panel and wind turbine demonstrations - about what wilderness means.

The tabling is part of the Vermont Chapter's wilderness campaign - a large part of which is dedicated to public education.

"When you say wilderness, a lot of people don't realize it's a technical term," said Laurie Martin, conservation organizer for the Vermont chapter, referring to the fact that wilderness is a permanent protection of public land, designated by Congress. "And when you say you want more wilderness designated, people think you're adding new land to the forest even though you're just protecting what's already there."

Just across Vermont's border, John Trummel, a Club volunteer in Hanover, N.H., would like to see approximately 125,000 acres of potential wilderness designated in the White Mountains National Forest. Trummel drives three hours round trip to Forest Service public meetings to speak up in favor of wilderness, and hopes the Forest Service will include the acreage as potential wilderness in its revised forest plan.

"I don't want the Forest Service to be able to ignore what the public of New Hampshire wants for wilderness just because they have the meetings really far away," said Trummel.

Eastern wilderness proponents face an uphill road in the quest for more wilderness designated. In addition to debating the issue with those opposed to wilderness - off-road vehicle users and loggers typically lobby against wilderness - Eastern activists often find themselves having to explain to the public what wilderness is, that it exists in their state and why it is important to designate more.

For loggers, all-terrain vehicle riders and snowmobilers, wilderness designation is a significant closure: There is no timber cutting or motorized vehicle use allowed in wilderness. Land managed as wilderness must have no roads or permanent structures, and must be preserved in its original and pristine condition. It is a place "where man is a visitor and does not remain," states the National Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System and permanently protected millions of acres of public lands.

Potential and protected wilderness areas in the East do not always meet the strict guidelines of the Wilderness Act, which requires an area to be at least 5,000 acres and in pristine condition, or "untrammeled by man." Since much of the public land in the East was previously logged, used historically by man or does not comprise 5,000 acres contiguously, it would not meet the technical requirements set out in 1964 by the Wilderness Act.

Thanks to a law passed by Congress in 1974, recovering Eastern lands can be designated as wilderness and incorporated as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. In passing the Eastern Wilderness Act, Congress recognized that Eastern public lands needed permanent protection from encroaching development and increasing populations, even if the areas did not fit the strict guidelines for wilderness designation.

In spite of the many stumbling blocks, wilderness advocates remain optimistic and active. "To help get the word out about Illinois' potential wilderness, we have a slide show we take around the state," said Chien. "We've shown it to church memberships, senior citizens groups, Audubon Society members and garden clubs."

After seeing the slide show, many viewers are eager to sign up in support of wilderness, said Barb McKasson, a volunteer from southern Illinois.

In the Shawnee, the Forest Service is only two years into the process of rewriting the forest plan, but already public comments show that citizens want wilderness, at a margin of seven to one, according to Chien.

In New Hampshire, the Sierra Club's Upper Valley Group is working with Friends of the Sandwich Range and Friends of the Wild River Range to coordinate volunteers to write letters, review pro-wilderness papers to submit to the Forest Service and motivate the public to attend Forest Service meetings.

Trummel hopes to build local support for wilderness by leading hikes into the Sandwich Range and exploring one of the proposed wilderness areas.

In Vermont, volunteers lead bi-monthly hikes into wilderness and provide natural history and environmental education, pro-wilderness meetings are planned throughout the state in conjunction with Forest Service planning, shops have agreed to post wilderness postcards and factsheets and a radio station aired an interview with Martin supporting more wilderness.

"We don't have the same extractive practices as the West," said Chien, "but we still have them. We need to do this job right and designate wilderness now - and not have to stop a destructive forest plan every 10 years."

Photo courtesy Laurie Martin.
Photo caption: Designating the Deciduous: In Illinois, wilderness advocates have a traveling slide show that includes the image at the top. The slides reveal an Illinois topography that most people don't realize exists: sandstone cliffs, rocky woods and the last known mesic barren in North America. They've presented the slide show to the El Dorado Rotary Club and First United Methodist Church in La Grange, among others. In Vermont, Club members lead wilderness hikes and ask participants to write letters or sign a postcard in support of wilderness - not logging and off-road vehicle use. In the bottom photo, some hikers try to get their heads around the idea of wilderness and their arms around an enormous tree during one of the hikes.

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