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Scenic southern tip of Illinois braces for oil, natural gas rush

Seth Perlman / AP

Lucy Childers, 6, plays on the rock formations at Ferne Clyffe State Park in Goreville, Ill.

By Tammy Webber, The Associated Press

VIENNA, Ill. — This is the Illinois that many people never see — the sparsely populated southern tip where flat farmland gives way to rolling hills, rocky outcrops, thick forests and cypress swamps.

Blacktopped county roads wend through no-stoplight towns. Locals speak in soft drawls and talk of generations who've lived on the same land or in the same villages. The remote and rugged Shawnee National Forest attracts hikers, campers and horseback riders, and offers a stark contrast to the rest of a state that largely has been plowed, paved or suburbanized.

But many here are beginning to brace for change as the Illinois Legislature considers regulations that could set off a rush among energy companies to drill deep in the southern Illinois bedrock for oil and natural gas. The crews would be using a process known as high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," that has transformed the landscape in places like North Dakota and Pennsylvania.

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Seth Perlman / AP

Majestic rock formations attract outdoor enthusiasts, tourists, climbers and backpackers at Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area near Herod, Ill.

Seth Perlman / AP

Cypress trees, many of which are more than 1,000-years-old and exceed 40 feet in circumference, stand in the Cache River State Natural Area near Belknap, Ill.