COLUMN: Illinois should have a national park, and it should be Shawnee National Forest


Trent Jonas

Trent Jonas is a graduate student studying English and can be reached at 217-581-2812.

Trent Jonas, Columnist

Yellowstone became the world’s first national park in 1872. There are now 63 national parks in the system, and none of them are in Illinois.

But the U.S. Forest Service’s 297,000-acre Shawnee National Forest would make a stunning addition to that prestigious (and increasingly politicized) list. Here is why. 

 Since 2016, four full-fledged national parks have been added to the National Park Service’s roster of its most esteemed units: New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia (you are welcome, Joe Manchin); White Sands National Park in New Mexico; somewhat surprisingly, Indiana Dunes National Park near Gary (probably a love letter from Trump to his then-VP); and absolutely inexplicably, Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis. 

All of these parks were already NPS units, but their status was upgraded to the agency’s highest level – which means bigger budgets, more visitors, more amenities, and more jobs created. New River was a national recreation area, and White Sands was a national monument. 

Indiana Dunes was a national lake shore, and Gateway Arch was a national expansion memorial (whatever that is).

Irritatingly, you can literally see these latter two parks from Illinois, and yet Illinois, apparently, does not even merit a national monument (the second tier of elite status when it comes to the national park service). 

It is true. We have a couple national historic sites and historic parks, as well as a couple of trails.

No national monuments, no national recreation areas, and most certainly, no national parks. And it would not be so galling if the two parks you can see from Illinois were even remotely worthy of their status. 

I mean, you are telling me that Gateway Arch, which is basically the size of a city park in downtown St. Louis, whose main attraction is a man-made structure that looks like the left half of a giant McDonald’s sign, with all the natural beauty of a grimy river town, should be considered on par with the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, the Everglades, or Glacier National Park?  

 I do not think so. 

Meanwhile, folks outside Illinois think of it as the “Prairie State” (yes, we named ourselves) and have no idea of the rugged beauty that Shawnee National Forest offers its visitors. You may be saying, that is a good thing—we get all the good stuff without the crowds. 

Yes, that is true. But the key difference between a national park and a national forest is the agency that controls it. National parks are protected and preserved for the people under the aegis of the Department of the Interior. National forests are managed by the Department of Agriculture. 

That is right—national forests are seen as a resource, a “crop” if you will, that is to be managed and used.

So, one day, you could climb to the top of the Garden of the Gods, look out over the wooded valleys and ravines, and see a section of it being clear-cut to build a new suburb of St. Louis. 

Meanwhile, every blade of grass around the benches at Gateway Arch, and every grain of Superfund sand that overlooks the bombed-out neighborhoods and refineries of Gary at Indiana Dunes enjoys the full protection of the United States government. 

The criteria for national park designation include nationally significant natural and cultural resources, combined with significant opportunities for recreation and education, as well as existing government management. Shawnee National Forest ticks all these boxes.  

The only box Gateway Arch ticked is it somehow got jammed into a bill that passed both houses of Congress and got signed by Trump. Why slag-heap Indiana Dunes and not the far-more impressive Sleeping Bear Dunes just up the shore in Michigan? Politics. 

If somebody really wants to designate a national park that meets all the criteria set forth by the National Park Service, they ought to take a hard look at Shawnee National Forest.

There is already a significant movement in southern Illinois pushing for upgrading the forest to national park status, and the Carbondale City Council even passed a resolution recommending designation of Shawnee National Park and Climate Preserve. 

I, for one, think it is a damned good idea—one that is on par with “America’s best idea:” the national parks, themselves. 

Trent Jonas is an English graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected] or 217-581-2812.