Major Grant for Restoration at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie has a rich historical and ecological legacy. As settlers moved west, they converted Illinois’ rich tallgrass prairie, including Midewin’s 20,000 acres, into productive farmland. In the 20th century, the area became the Joliet Arsenal, producing more than one billion pounds of TNT and employing 10,000 workers in its WWII heyday. The U.S. Forest Service assumed ownership of the arsenal in 1996 and renamed the area Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie with the intention of one day bringing Midewin’s history full circle by restoring the original tallgrass prairie ecosystem.
Since 1996, numerous partners have helped the Forest Service return several thousand acres of Midewin to native tallgrass prairie, which once covered Illinois and provided its nickname: "The Prairie State." But much work remains. This new plan and supporting philanthropic challenge represents the biggest step forward toward the agency’s goal since receiving the land from the DoD.
In 2012, the NFF designated Midewin as a "Treasured Landscapes" site, one of 14 in its Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences conservation effort. Working with a group of local stakeholders that included Openlands, the Midewin Heritage Association, The Wetlands Initiative, The Nature Conservancy, Chicago Botanical Garden and others, the NFF has spent the last four years restoring 2,000 acres of Midewin, an area known as the South Prairie Creek Outwash Plain.
Additionally, the NFF spearheaded an effort to introduce an experimental herd of American bison to the Prairie. In October of 2015, 27 bison were released onto the prairie, raising Midewin’s profile and providing opportunities for the Forest Service to study how bison can help restore the native tallgrass prairie ecosystem.
This success helped the NFF secure $2 million in challenge grants from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation and the Grand Victoria Foundation ($1 million each). The NFF must now raise $2 million to match these grants. In addition, the U.S. Forest Service has committed an additional $2.7 million in funding, bringing the potential total to $6.7 million in restoration funding.
Once achieved, this funding will enable the NFF, the Forest Service and The Wetlands Initiative to restore an additional 1,800 acres on Midewin’s west side, creating 4,000 acres of nearly contiguous tallgrass prairie habitat. This milestone represents the largest tallgrass prairie restoration effort east of the Mississippi River.
"The Forest Service is proud of the incredible tallgrass prairie restoration we’ve accomplished so far, and we are looking forward to using these grants to build on our success in continued partnership with the National Forest Foundation," said Eastern Regional Forester Kathleen Atkinson.
David Farren, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation’s Executive Director, is excited about this expansion effort, "The importance of Midewin cannot be overstated. There is so little prairie left in Illinois, and what remains is mostly in small, isolated fragments. The NFF, working alongside the U.S. Forest Service and many other partner groups, is well positioned to bring back the tallgrass prairie on the grand scale it deserves, to give people a real experience of our namesake natural heritage, to provide refuge for rare and endangered grassland birds, as well as our recently-designated national mammal, the American bison."
Nancy Fishman, Executive Director of Grand Victoria Foundation, stated, "This is a moment to ride the Midewin momentum. Just as restoration will fully connect this glorious landscape, we hope that this challenge grant helps NFF and the Forest Service connect with new supporters and enthusiasts who will ensure that Midewin adds a new phase of its fascinating history."
"We have been working at Midewin since 2012 when we led the effort with community-based partners to develop a business plan," said NFF President Bill Possiel. "These challenge grants support implementation of that plan in a coordinated effort with our partners. We are excited about the next phase of restoration work and the opportunity to restore such a large section of this fascinating landscape."
Restoring Midewin’s native tallgrass prairie is no small task. First munitions bunkers must be demolished and disposed of. Then legacy roads, rail lines and drainage structure must be removed. This restores the natural hydrology of the tallgrass prairie landscape. Removing invasive species that have firmly established over the years comes next. Finally, native tallgrass prairie plants get planted on the restored acreage, and prescribed fire is introduced to maintain a healthy tallgrass prairie ecosystem.
To learn more about the NFF’s efforts or to donate, visit: nationalforests.org/midewin.