An Introduction to the Shawnee National Forest and its Natural Areas:
natural bridge rock formation
If a single word could define the Shawnee National Forest, diversity would be most appropriate. The Shawnee occupies an area of Illinois just south of where the Illinoian Glacier stopped during the Pleistocene Epoch (~120,000 years ago). Here, massive sandstone, limestone, and shale escarpments stand ancient, weathered, and exposed. Today, a mantle of trees covers most of the landscape. Glades, where the rock is at or near the surface, are open areas in the forest; rock ledges are windswept, inhospitable places where trees grow only around the edges and in the ever-widening cracks and faults in the rock. The deep, steep-sided ravines are verdant jungles of American beech, maple, and a host of other tree species. The overarching factor, though, is the forest, primarily dominated by oak and hickory, but supporting great tree diversity as the moisture and landforms vary.
Even though the majority of the original forest has been logged from 1–10 times and much of it farmed for more than 100 years, with the advent of its designation of a National Forest in 1933, the Shawnee began it’s long recovery. Today, the forest is dynamic and beautiful.
Within this forest, however, are places that have been virtually undisturbed. These special natural areas still reflect the habitat, plant, and animal diversity present before European settlement. A natural area is defined as “an area of land or water in public or private ownership which either retains or has recovered to a substantial degree its original natural character, though it need not be completely undisturbed, or has floral, faunal, or ecological features of state-wide significance.” Notwithstanding the bureaucratic jargon, individuals know when they have entered a special place in the forest. A further designation in the Shawnee is called a Research Natural Area—permanently protected to maintain biological diversity and to provide places for research and monitoring of undisturbed natural areas. With evocative names like LaRue-Pine Hills/Otter Pond, Bell Smith Springs, and Panther Hollow, they excite the imagination of potential visitors.