When New Yorker Eliza Steele journeyed through Illinois in the summer of 1840, she was delighted to come across the state’s lush, vast prairies. Enchanted by the prairie’s sublime beauty, she noted in her journal the wonder she experienced as thousands of acres of undulating grasslands stretched before her. 

Since then, intrusive human activity in the region has caused all but a tiny fraction of the Illinois prairie to vanish. Drainage and conversion of the land to agriculture, as well as the U.S. Army’s production of TNT at the site that is now Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, destroyed or severely impacted the delicate prairie–wetland ecosystem.

Natural and Cultural History of the Prairie

Native yellow flowers and grasses stretch to the horizon at Midewin.

The extensive grasslands once present in the area of Midewin supported a multitude of plants, wildlife, and humans for centuries. A shift in climate to warmer, drier conditions about 8,700 years ago and the occurrence of fire due to lightning or human activity resulted in prairie and savanna replacing deciduous forests in this region. Periodic droughts and fires set by the inhabitants helped maintain the grassland.

Early inhabitants of this region 12,000 years ago lived in small, highly mobile groups as hunters and gatherers. The warming of the climate encouraged agriculture, and the 12 nations of the Illiniwek—as well as the Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, and other tribes—established semi-permanent agricultural villages.

By the 1800s, increasing numbers of European and American settlers entered southern Illinois, making their way north toward the Great Lakes. At the turn of the century, much of Illinois was being drained and converted to agriculture. By the 1930s, the area was crisscrossed by miles upon miles of underground ceramic drain tiles, which kept the land dry enough for farming.

The Joliet Arsenal Days

In 1940, the federal government authorized construction of the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant on the land that is now Midewin. Built to meet the U.S. military’s demand for explosives and ammunition during World War II, the Joliet Plant was the most sophisticated munitions plant in the world. At its peak production, the plant employed over 10,000 people and loaded over 900 million bombs, shells, mines, detonators, fuses, and boosters, while setting a national record for producing over 1 billion pounds of TNT. The water in Grant Creek, which runs through the site, at that time flowed red.

Dozens of old concrete ammunition bunkers dot the landscape in some areas of Midewin and are gradually being removed.

By the late 1970s, munitions operations at this site had ceased. In 1996, Congress established Midewin as the first designated national tallgrass prairie, turning over control of the property to the U.S. Forest Service. Restoration at Midewin is the region’s largest effort to reverse the prairie’s destruction by restoring 20,000 acres of healthy natural habitats. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie has been dubbed “the first national park for the 21st century” because of the tremendous time and energy that will go into this nationally-significant restoration effort.

The Wetlands Initiative’s Partnership

Since 1997, TWI has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service through a public–private partnership to help restore Midewin’s 20,000 acres to its full natural glory. TWI annually employs a small crew of youth restoration technicians, overseen by TWI ecologists, to carry out removal of invasive species and planting of a great diversity of native species as seed and plugs (seedlings). Midewin now is becoming home to a biologically rich tapestry of native species, thanks to the combined efforts of TWI, the Forest Service, and other partnering organizations.

In 2001, TWI’s first two on-the-ground restoration efforts at Midewin commenced at the Blodgett Road site and South Patrol Road site—both parcels named for Midewin’s arsenal history.

2006: TWI focused on restoring 150 acres of globally rare micro-environment at the Blodgett Road restoration site called dolomite wetland–prairie. This ecosystem is characterized by a thin layer of topsoil atop calcareous bedrock and a diversity of plant life specifically adapted to these conditions.

2007: The Forest Service awarded the Wetlands Initiative its national Habitat Conservation Award for TWI’s successful 10-year partnership.

2008: TWI and partners began to explore ways to re-introduce the federally-threatened eastern prairie fringed orchid.

2009: TWI completed a two-year effort with the Forest Service to complete the Lower Drummond Restoration Project and began work on the Grant Creek Restoration Project.

2011: The Wetlands Initiative participated with other key Midewin partners in a rapid planning process, led by the National Forest Foundation, to develop a 10-year vision for Midewin's restoration and development as a public resource.

2012: TWI finished restoration work on the 470-acre Grant Creek project and began work on the adjacent, 160-acre Lobelia Meadows Restoration Project, the organization's sixth restoration effort at Midewin.

2014: The National Forest Foundation engaged TWI to carry out on-the-ground restoration at the South Prairie Creek Outwash Plain.

2015: The Wetlands Initiative has raised more than $3.5 million for restoration at Midewin, in addition to providing technical expertise, and has restored more than 1,800 acres to date.