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The Shawnee National Forest: Eighty years of a living legacy

  • Women picnic at Pounds Hollow in 1941.

    Women picnic at Pounds Hollow in 1941.

  • An early photo of Bell Smith Springs being used by swimmers.

    An early photo of Bell Smith Springs being used by swimmers.

  • The fire tower at Williams Hill may be seen in this image from 1938.

    The fire tower at Williams Hill may be seen in this image from 1938.

Submitted by Mary McCorvie,
Shawnee National Forest Heritage Program Manager/Tribal Liaison
updated: 8/30/2019 10:49 AM

Editor's note: Beginning Friday, Sept. 6, the Shawnee National Forest will begin celebrating its 80th anniversary. Mary McCorvie will present a program detailing the 80-year history of the forest at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5, at Harrisburg District Library.

Eighty years ago, southern Illinois newspaper editor Col. L.O. Trigg began to see the fruits of his labor.

He and many others in the southernmost part of Illinois had worked tirelessly and endlessly for the establishment of a national forest in Illinois.

The Chicago Tribune had written several articles calling for the removal of "idle lands" that were "drifting out of cultivation" because they could no longer support the farm families that had come to rely on them for their livelihood.

Like much of the country's agricultural lands during the Great Depression, southern Illinois soils were overworked and tired out. They had provided food, shelter, warmth, furniture and tools to thousands of families during the 1900s, but by the turn of the century they were worn out. Their natural fertility had been depleted and had not been replaced.

People like Lindolph Oscar (L.O.) Trigg, Harrisburg educator Clarence Bonnell, Pope County Congressman Claude V. Parsons, Golconda Judge Benjamin F. Anderson, Harrisburg attorney W.W. Wheatley, and many others all saw the need to change the face of southern Illinois during the dark days of the Great Depression.

They saw a different future for their friends and neighbors, a verdant and vibrant future filled with trees and tourists, and they worked hard for their dream to become a reality and for southern Illinois to prosper again.

Out of this group the Illinois Ozarks Reforestation Unit and the annual Ozark Tours were born. Working with the Illinois Natural History Survey, the National Forest Reservation Commission, University of Illinois, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Agricultural Association, State Academy of Science, the Friend of our National Landscape Association of Illinois, State Federation of Women's Clubs, State Planning Commission, States Forestry Congress, Illinois Izaak Walton League, as well as the State administration and various other organizations and private citizens, congressmen and senators, money finally became available for a national forest in southern Illinois.

The approval for a national forest in Illinois under the Emergency Conservation Program marked the first major expansion of national forests in the east during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's new administration. The first parcels of land were offered to the government in October 1934. These land purchases poured much needed cash into the local economy, which had been suffering since the close of World War I.

Folks could once again purchase supplies at the local general store, again helping the local store owners along and enabling a slow but steady economic recovery.

At the same time the Shawnee National Forest was being stitched together out of old farm fields, hundreds of Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees were arriving daily. Transported by train and truck from Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis and Fort Sheridan in Chicago, these CCC enrollees would soon begin to change the face of southern Illinois with the construction of all-weather roads and highways, telephone and electric lines, fire towers, state parks and picnic grounds, camping sites, and hiking trails.

But perhaps most important of all for the new national forest, they planted trees, replacing old worn-out and eroded farm fields with fast-growing pine trees that would hold the soil, and keep it from further erosion and silting up the nation's waterways.

The CCC boys improved all of our favorite places on the Forest, from the Garden of the Gods, Pounds Hollow and Bell Smith Springs, to the Little Grand Canyon and the Emergency Relief Act program La Rue Scenic Area, which set aside 1,312 acres to preserve existing botanical diversity without human interference or development.

By the middle of 1934, the Harrisburg Daily Register carried an article citing the accomplishments that had occurred within the new forest including the establishment of six CCC camps, surfacing of 68 miles of road by Civil Works Administration, and 60 miles by the CCC, construction of 7.6 miles of telephone line, experimental planting of 62 acres of pine, and the construction of three bridges.

Progress continued during the next five years, and in 1939 the Shawnee was proclaimed a National Forest with 184,539 acres of new government-owned lands.

Hundreds or perhaps thousands of individuals have contributed to the establishment of the Shawnee National Forest. In 1935 alone there were 300 individuals being payrolled by the Forest Service, including 78 through the Emergency Relief Act program.

More recently, hundreds of individuals have continued the tradition begun by President Roosevelt's New Deal alphabet agencies, such as the ERA, CWA and the CCC. Improvements to the Forest continued under the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations with the Accelerated Public Works (1962) and the Jobs Corps program (1964), each making significant contributions to the Shawnee National Forest, including laying the trail pavement we use today at the Garden of the Gods (APW), and recreation improvements at the Illinois Iron Furnace and at Tower Rock (Golconda JC). A wide variety of Youth Conservation Corps projects have been ongoing on the Forest since 1974.

Today the Shawnee Volunteer Corps logs hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours each year helping to construct and maintain trails, keep recreation areas clean, conduct archaeological investigations, and participating in a wide variety of Service Learning projects. Partnerships also help to expand the capabilities of the forest.

Partners such as the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, Whitetails Unlimited, the Shawnee Trails Conservancy, Southern Illinois University, University of Illinois Extension, the Archaeological Conservancy, and the Sierra Club are just a few of the many organizations that have enhanced the management of the Shawnee National Forest through the sweat of their membership and students, as well as their financial contribution toward land acquisition and project development.

It has been more than 80 years since L.O. Trigg and the Illinois Ozarks Reforestation Unit first began to dream about a national forest for southern Illinois.

Thanks to their tenacious efforts and all the hard work they and many others have contributed over the intervening decades, the Shawnee National Forest is a living legacy for all to enjoy.