New Midewin project to turn concrete back to flowers

The U.S. Forest Service and the Wetlands Initiative have committed to partner to restore 160 acres of former industrial land to native prairie and wetlands at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, to begin in summer 2012.

Called the Lobelia Meadows Restoration Project, this will mark the sixth restoration effort the Initiative has undertaken at Midewin, the nation's only designated national tallgrass prairie and the largest restoration of its kind east of the Mississippi.

Other Initiative restoration sites at Midewin had primarily been agricultural buffer areas at the former U.S. Army arsenal. The Lobelia Meadows site, however, contains the footprint of a sewage treatment plant used by the Army. The Forest Service has already successfully removed the building itself, but its associated infrastructure such as concretes, berms, and pipes remains. This will all need to be removed, in addition to the usual seeding, plug planting, and invasive management work conducted by TWI restoration crews.

"Of all our work at Midewin, this is the first project that will involve transforming heavily industrial land back into a vibrant natural area," said Paul Botts, Initiative executive director.

The great blue lobelia is one of three lobelia species that will thrive at the Initiative's new Lobelia Meadows Restoration Project.

The project was named for the three species of lobelias that can be found in pockets of remnant habitat on the site. Lobelias are showy wildflowers that thrive in wet prairie and sedge meadows, which Initiative ecologists expect to cover much of the targeted area once restored.

The Wetlands Initiative is currently in its last year of intensive restoration work at Midewin's 470-acre Grant Creek Restoration Project, which will wrap in 2012. The Lobelia Meadows project is strategically located to link the Grant Creek area with previous TWI restorations—resulting in a 1,200-acre restored landscape.

"Lobelia Meadows can be seen as a critical piece in the restoration jigsaw puzzle at Midewin," Botts said. "Once it's complete, it will create a vast corridor of healthy restored land on Midewin's west side."

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is the former site of the Joliet Army Arsenal, one of the largest ammunition plants in the country during World War II. Now, the Forest Service is overseeing the management and restoration of its 20,000 acres. Since 1999, the Wetlands Initiative has been the Forest Service's major on-the-ground restoration partner at Midewin. To date, TWI has completed restoration on more than 1,000 acres of Midewin, helping to recover a landscape of diverse wetlands and prairie.