A proposed land swap between Peabody Energy and the Shawnee National Forest would give the Forest Service 830 acres of prime wildlife habitat and the energy company land that could be strip mined.
According to the proposal, Peabody would give two parcels of land in Pope County and one in Jackson County to the Forest Service in exchange for 384 acres in Gallatin County.
Land management experts from the Forest Service, citizens who oppose strip mining and members from local environmental organizations discussed the proposed swap during an open house Wednesday night at the park headquarters in Harrisburg.
Ron Scott, Shawnee National Forest lands program manager, said the purpose of the open house was to provide information about the proposed land swap and to invite public comments.
Scott said the National Forest Service is in the preliminary stages of an environmental assessment and he expected to hear strong opinions about the proposed land swap during the remainder of the month. The public scoping period, or the time during which public comments are accepted, ends Tuesday.
Scott said Peabody approached Shawnee National Forest with the proposal.
He said the land Peabody is offering would be valuable to the Forest Service.
The Jackson County parcel of land lies just north of the Fountain Bluff region of the Shawnee National Forest and is bordered on the west by the Mississippi River. It is an ecologically important bottomland that would be good for wildlife habitat, Scott said.
Meg Gallagher, Peabody’s director of corporate communications, said she thought the proposed swap would benefit the Forest Service and the local community.
“The exchange would provide two acres of land contiguous to U.S. Forest Service properties in exchange for every one acre that would be received,” she said.
Gallagher said it was too premature to speculate about Peabody’s possible use of the property it receive in the swap, but the company routinely evaluates properties for development potential based on market conditions, geology and transportation considerations. Selling the property to another company for a different use was a possibility, she said.
All the parcels of land Peabody is offering to trade are very desirable, said Sam Stearns, a Stonefort resident and public education coordinator for Friends of Bell Smith Springs, a nonprofit citizens’ group that promotes natural conservation.
He said one of the Pope County parcels is a jewel because Lusk Creek runs through it. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, rare plant species such as the arching dewberry and the superb lily, and many fern and clubmoss species grow near the creek.
“It would be a valuable asset as a public property,” he said.
Stearns said after carefully weighing all the issues, he’d recommend against the swap. If the proposed swap was with a logging company, he said he might have supported it.
“If it [the Gallatin County land] were used for logging, I could hold my nose and go along with the swap,” he said.
Stearns said while harvesting timber adversely affects wildlife habitat, the damage is repairable through reforestation, or tree-planting projects.
Stearns said he couldn’t support any initiatives that would lead to more strip mining in the region.
“There are concerns about the coal cycle from start to finish, but strip mining goes even beyond that. After an area has been strip mined, it can never be geologically or biologically restored to its natural state,” he said.
Shawnee Group Sierra Club Chairman Barbara McKasson said her organization opposed the land swap because a nesting colony of Indiana bats was discovered during a biological survey of the government-owned land last summer. The Indiana bat is listed as an endangered species.
“There are also rare bottomland hardwood trees on that property, like cherry bark oak, that are huge, and shouldn’t be cut down,” she said.
MaKasson said the Forest Service is supposed to give top priority to preserving land that is habitat to endangered species.
“The Forest Service should drop the swap in Gallatin County,” she said.
The Indiana bat may not be the only federally protected animal on the Gallatin County parcel of land.
Herpetologist Steve Karsen studied a large map of the Shawnee National Forest during the open house and said he was contracted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to determine if the copperbelly water snake, which is listed as a threatened species, dwells on the Gallatin County parcel of land.
He said depending on the outcome of his research, the snake’s presence could be a factor in the proposed land swap.
Richard Blume-Weaver, a Shawnee National Forest planning and resources staff officer, said his agency would be evaluating the public’s comments on federally protected species as well as other concerns during the environmental phase, which will be conducted over the next few months.
He said the findings from the environmental assessment phase will be released in a document made available to the public, possibly by next summer.