TWI to play key role in seven-year “great leap” restoration at Midewin

The U.S. Forest Service’s Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County, Illinois, is big in every sense of the word. At 20,000 acres, it’s the largest prairie restoration effort east of the Mississippi River, as well as the largest public open space in the Chicago metropolitan region. In fall 2015, it got some very big new inhabitants when bison were reintroduced. And starting in 2016, TWI will be part of a major restoration expansion at Midewin that’s bigger than anything ever done there before.

Today the National Forest Foundation (NFF), a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the health and public enjoyment of the National Forest System, officially announced a seven-year, $6.7-million project that will restore an additional 1,800 acres of high-quality prairies and wetlands on Midewin’s west side (view map here). Working in close collaboration with the NFF and the U.S. Forest Service, TWI will carry out the on-the-ground invasive management and native planting work needed to transform that vast acreage back to healthy native habitats. TWI’s work is beginning in 2016 and is expected to continue through 2023.

An aerial view of a portion of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie that will be restored under the new seven-year project, including former arsenal ammunition bunkers. Old bunkers will be removed by the Forest Service over the course of this project.

“Progress in restoring Midewin has been steady, but piece by piece, in kind of a checkerboard pattern. Completing restoration on this huge new area will be a massive leap forward in realizing Midewin’s full potential,” said TWI President and Executive Director Paul Botts. “The significant new investments committed to this effort by the Forest Service, the NFF, the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, and the Grand Victoria Foundation will make it possible to carry out restoration at Midewin on a much greater scale—and faster—than ever before. We’re honored and excited to be part of it.”

The NFF has secured $1 million from the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation and $1 million from the Grand Victoria Foundation in challenge grants for the new project. The NFF is now raising another $2 million to match the foundations’ leadership support. The U.S. Forest Service has committed another $2.7 million in new funding beyond regular annual Midewin operations, bringing the potential total to $6.7 million in restoration funding.

The land that is now Midewin was previously the site of the world’s largest ammunition plant, the Joliet Army Arsenal. After that facility was decommissioned, two-thirds of the land was designated in 1996 as the nation’s first National Tallgrass Prairie to be managed and restored by the Forest Service. “Midewin” is the name of a Potawatomi healing society, honoring the Native Americans who historically occupied this area and representing the goal of “healing” the tallgrass prairie that once covered this land.

TWI has partnered with the Forest Service to restore prairie–wetland landscapes at Midewin since 1997, completing restoration work on more than 1,500 acres across seven discrete projects thus far. The NFF, the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, and the Grand Victoria Foundation have all provided major longtime support for TWI’s efforts at Midewin to date. Once complete, the new restoration area will connect all these previous parcels, plus other sites restored on Midewin’s west side by the Forest Service and other Midewin partners over the past 20 years.

A map showing previously restored parcels on Midewin’s west side and how they will connect with the seven-year restoration effort. 

“Ultimately, this new effort will nearly double the footprint of restoration at Midewin to more than 4,000 acres of connected habitat, establishing a diverse mosaic of prairies and wetlands,” said Gary Sullivan, TWI’s senior ecologist who designed the seven-year restoration plan with Forest Service Ecologist Bill Glass and the NFF. “The range of high-quality habitat to be developed across this landscape will provide critical support for many rare prairie and wetland plants, birds, and wildlife, including some of the most threatened species in the state.”

Scaling up TWI’s operation at Midewin will also mean a new set of logistics for our field restoration crew: more people, more supplies, and a lot more ground to cover with those supplies and workers. This October, TWI Restoration Specialist and Midewin crew leader Trevor Edmonson will be running in the Chicago Marathon to raise funds for a new all-terrain vehicle (ATV) that’s needed for TWI’s expanded Midewin work. Visit Trevor’s CrowdRise page here to support his race!

In the meantime, TWI is already taking the first steps at Midewin on the mammoth new restoration effort. Invasive removal and native planting work began on about 430 acres in May 2016, and we’ll quickly ramp up our work to a bigger footprint in 2017.