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Shawnee National Forest to begin burning program
Smoke seen in the Shawnee National Forest in November may be from fires that improve the forest instead of harm it.
About 4,700 acres are involved in a program of controlled fires through May. Goals are to manage native vegetation, improve wildlife habitats, better the visual quality of the area and reduce the likelihood of wildfires.
The Shawnee National Forest stretches across 280,000 acres of the southern tip of Illinois, in parts of Pope, Jackson, Union, Hardin, Alexander, Saline, Gallatin, Johnson and Massac counties. Areas throughout the forest may be targeted by fire management officials from the U.S. Forest Service.
Conditions have to be right for the burns to occur, said Scott Crist, fuels specialist for the Shawnee National Forest. Considerations include humidity, wind speed and direction, woody fuel moisture and soil moisture. He said the best times are usually in November, late February and early April when the leaves are off the trees and grasslands are dry.
"We are trying to achieve multiple objectives," Crist said.
Game species such as deer, turkey, squirrels and ducks thrive on increased nut sources created by decreasing the amount of forest plants that compete with oak trees. Low-intensity burning can remove beds of leaves and grasses to eliminate potential fuel for wildfires for the upcoming year.
Burns have taken place for 15 to 20 years in the area, said Bob Little, acting forest fire management officer for the Shawnee National Forest. Still, as a management tool burns are somewhat new compared to other areas of the country. They are proposed yearly, subject to state air quality regulations and guidelines set by the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act. Each program must advertise an environmental assessment that includes actions and alternatives to landowners and the public. Public dissent has caused plans to change in the past, Little said.
Crist said that the popular feeling about fire is that it is bad. The Smokey Bear campaign, started in he 1940s, is the longest public service campaign in U.S. history, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Smokey's warnings about fire have branded it a destructive force, Crist said, eclipsing its positive aspects.
"Fire can be a good thing," said Crist, adding that it is part of nature and sometimes necessary to the ecosystem.
However, Crist cautioned nonprofessionals against attempting their own burns. Most wildfires, he said, are caused by people burning on their own property.
Private landowners who border forest lands may be eligible to have the forest service include them in scheduled burns at no cost, Crist said. Anyone can contact their district or county forester to help them set up safe plans for burning. Landowner associations may assist members and there are some grant and cost-sharing programs that can help individuals hire private contractors.
Anyone who would like more information on the burning program can contact Shawnee National Forest Headquarters at 618-253-7114.
Shawnee National Forest, IL