By Don Corrigan
Trees have never been so important as now. Stands of trees can help counteract harmful climate change. That’s, in part, why a national and local fight continues to halt destruction of old growth forests.
Residents interested in the fight for trees may want to attend the film, “Shawnee Showdown: Keep the Forest Standing.” The documentary will show at 7 p.m., Feb. 18, at Winifred Moore Auditorium on the campus of Webster University.
It documents a past battle in the 1980s and 1990s, when a dedicated group of activists fought on the ground and in the courts to stop clear-cutting, oil and gas drilling, and ATV use in the Shawnee National Forest located in Southern Illinois.
The activists were successful for a time, but the battle begins anew because the prohibition on many such activities in the Shawnee National Forest was lifted several years ago. That gives the film particular relevance.
Karla Armbruster, an English and Sustainability Studies professor at Webster University, was instrumental in bringing the documentary to campus. She cited some photos in the film that were taken by world-renowned photographer, Orin Langelle, who honed his talents in Webster’s media studies program.
“I associated this kind of protest with the Pacific Northwest and was thrilled to learn that it happened here in the Midwest,” said Armbruster. “It sounds like more activism of this kind is needed now to keep our forests healthy.
“This film offers not only a history lesson but also encouragement that ordinary people, who care, can really come together and make a difference,” she added.
Armbruster is making a difference off-campus as an ad hoc member of the Webster Groves City Sustainability Commission. She is pleased to see more people getting involved in different ways to help the environment.
“This film is a wonderful example of ‘getting involved.’ It lets us know we can never become complacent,” she said. “Preserving our national forests, deciding what ‘preservation’ means, figuring out who gets to use public lands for what purposes – it’s an ongoing task every generation needs to take up.”
The film slated for Feb. 18 presents tough questions about public land use. Should our public land be degraded to generate commercial profit for a few? Will state and national treasuries take a hit from regulations?
With the effects of climate change intensifying and the knowledge that mature forests sequester more carbon, should forests be protected as regional carbon sinks? How can the forest remain a healthy habitat for struggling forest species like migratory songbirds?
Steve Taylor has been asking some of these questions for years. He attended St. Louis Community College (SLCC) at Meramec in Kirkwood before taking advanced degrees for teaching at Jefferson College and in the SLCC system.
“I recall my dad taking me along to his Sierra Club meetings when I was very young where I would fall asleep listening to people talking,” Taylor said. “We also spent most weekends camping and floating the rivers.
“I think all that got me very attuned to natural treasures around me,” Taylor said. “Later, when I learned of plans to clear cut the Shawnee National Forest, it was a natural step for me to become involved.
Taylor joined the forest encampments and protests of 1990 and 1991. He makes several appearances in the film at the 79-day blockade of timber-cutting equipment. He has stayed in touch with demonstrators from that time.
“The film interviews intensively those who live in Southern Illinois, including my good friend John Wallace, who currently heads the Shawnee Forest Defense group,” said Taylor. “There will always be a special bond among those of us who lived at the blockade.”
“Cade Bursell, who is a professor of cinema and photography at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, did an excellent job with the film,” added Taylor. “She took on a formidable task finding archival footage from various news outlets to put it together.”
At a fall screening in Carbondale, Taylor said a panel discussion included forest advocates John Wallace, Rene Cook and Deborah Button, as well as Cade Bursell. Former Congressman Glenn Poshard also participated as he was a big woodlands supporter and was actually at forest protests.
The Battle Continues
“Our protests and lawsuits put a stop to this deforestation,” said Taylor. “But the movement was a victim of its own success in the sense that most people in the region take protections for granted. Now that the moratorium is ended, there is hope this film will be a reminder of what we still have to lose.
“Climate change is an existential threat now,” Taylor added. “When you look at the dubious techno-fixes to address it, such as carbon capture or geo-engineering, it makes even less sense to cut down these old-growth forests.”
Webster University’s Armbruster finds that college students are again being drawn to campaigns like the Keep the Forest Standing movement. With wildfires and extreme weather, they see what climate change is doing to their planet and their future.
“Clear cutting is pretty much what you would think – cutting down everything in a forest indiscriminately, whether you can use it or not, leaving a ‘clear’ space – completely destroying forest ecosystems,” said Armbruster.
She said animals that survive it, have nowhere to go. The soil is no longer anchored by the roots of healthy trees and so erodes into waterways. In hilly and mountainous areas, the erosion can lead to landslides.
“Now we know about climate impact as well, since trees take in carbon dioxide and store carbon that we are putting into the atmosphere,” she said. “There are alternatives to clear cutting, such as selective logging.
“When trees are cut down selectively, leaving the rest of the ecosystem intact, they are able to replace themselves over time,” Armbruster explained. She said humans must be smarter about what they are doing to forests and the planet.