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Bell Smith Springs (Shawnee National Forest)

Devil’s Backbone, a popular hike in Shawnee National Forest.

Nestled between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Shawnee National Forest covers some 260,000 acres of dense hardwood forest in Southern Illinois.

In the 1990s, the U.S. Forest Service proposed to allow a Missouri company to cut over 3,400 acres in a part of the forest called the Bell Smith Spring area, one of the most popular recreation areas in the forest – it contains eight miles of interconnected trails featuring strange and wonderful rock formations, such as Devil’s Backbone, Boulder Falls, and a natural rock bridge.

The Forest Service originally proposed cutting the pines as a routine commercial harvest, but before a permit could be granted the Forest Service was required to carry out an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This review process requires federal agencies to disclose a proposed project’s projected impacts on the environment, public health, and economic livelihood of local residents.

This NEPA review process revealed that the extensive logging proposed by the Forest Service would irreparably damage Bell Smith Springs and, when the Forest Service sought to approve the project anyway, environmentalists went to court.

Environmentalists stopped it on the grounds that it was clear-cutting. The Forest Service then slightly altered the plan, called it something else, and tried again. It was successfully blocked again, so USFS came back for a third time and called it “ecological restoration.”

This time, they explained, the pines needed cutting to restore the area to hardwoods, which had dominated before the land was cleared for farming about 100 years. This move, however, was again questioned. As environmental groups pointed out, hardwood saplings were already filling the understory of the mature pines, and the ridge-tops were predicted to revert to hardwood on their own within the next twenty years.

The proposed timber harvest near Bell Smith Springs was permanently halted, but without the NEPA process and its requirement for the disclosure of project impacts, it would have been extremely difficult for advocates to demonstrate the irreparable harm that would have fallen on Shawnee National Forest.


[1] “A case study on successes and failures in challenging logging activities with adverse cumulative effects on fish and wildlife.” Lewis & Clark Northwestern School of Law, 2002. Available at:…-a092808316

[2] “Soul of the Wilderness: can we stop trying to control nature?” International Journal of Wilderness. April 2000, Vol. 6, No. 01. Available at:

[3] “A Smart Infrastructure Plan Wouldn’t Gut Environmental Reviews.” Environmental Law and Policy Center. February 9, 2018 Available at:

[4] “Battle of Shawnee Forest Rooted in U.S. Land Debate.” Chicago Tribune. August 28, 1991. Available at:


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