Prairie protectors decry potential Illiana Tollway impact
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com July 4, 2014 9:48PM
Orland Park resident Lorin Schab, of the Midewin Heritage Alliance, said the ambiance of Midewin's open prairie will be destroyed by the traffic on the proposed Illiana tollway. | Susan DeMar Lafferty/Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 7, 2014 6:16AM
There are many properties and faces that are part of the rural landscape of southern Will County — many folks who have made country life their livelihood, their dream, their retirement.
They have stories to tell about what it means to live out here, to grow up here, surrounded by vast open space during the day and by quiet and dark skies at night.
Now they worry deeply about their future and the future of rural Will County. The proposed Illiana tollway that will plow a 47-mile concrete path through this farmland from Interstate 55 in Wilmington to I-65 in Lowell, Indiana, forever will change the landscape, and uproot their lives in the process, they said.
The project is awaiting federal approval and a funding plan involving both states and likely a private partnership. Neither likely is to be acted upon until at least the fall, but that only prolongs their anguish.
They came out here to escape city life. It was the last place they ever expected to see such a roadway built.
Their shock has given way to anger, fear, resignation and questions — many more questions than for which there are answers.
Not all were willing to share their stories. Officials told the SouthtownStar that some of the younger generation — descendants of farmers, who rent their land to other farmers — may be eager to sell but would not talk publicly because they know their neighbors are opposed to the tollway.
Those most vocal about the tollway are those who are against it. The SouthtownStar has met many of these people in the path, sat down at their kitchen tables, walked along their land and listened to their stories.
A six-part occasional series presenting what they had to say begins not with one of the residents, but those concerned with the future of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, at 30239 Route 53, near Wilmington.
The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was created by the federal government in 1996, with a goal to restore the land and create the first national tallgrass prairie.
“Midewin” means “healing,” and the prairie is designed to create a balance between use and conservation, between the needs of the future and the legacy of its past.
But many are concerned for its future and wonder if the same federal government that created it now will spoil the effort by approving the proposed Illiana tollway, which would run just beyond its southern edge.
“This is not even close to what was envisioned for Midewin,” a frustrated Jerry Heinrich, president of the Midewin Tallgrass Prairie Alliance, said of the tollway and its potential impacts. “Midewin is being ignored. It is being sacrificed.”
Lying just outside the tollway’s footprint, its 19,000 acres still are being restored, and yet already it has become home to more than 600 plants, a hundred bird species and numerous other animals.
According to Heinrich and Lorin Schab, of Midewin’s Heritage Alliance, Midewin was envisioned as a site to take visitors back to Illinois’ prairie days, where one could stand and look out over the expanse of grasses and plants and view the upland sandpipers, bobolinks and bison in a natural habitat.
“No one has seen a true tall grass prairie — 99 percent of them were destroyed. There is no other area that has the resources that this area does. There are no other tallgrass prairies east of the Mississippi,” Heinrich said. “This is an ecosystem. It is alive.”
Once the Illiana is built, people will stand in the prairie and instead of hearing the grasses rustle in the wind and birds singing, they will hear trucks, they said. Midewin’s ambiance will be lost in the sights and sounds of the tollway.
Even now, when Heinrich is outside planting on the prairie, or Schab is giving one of his many tours on the prairie’s history, ghosts and cemeteries, they cannot hear themselves speak over the current truck traffic on Route 53.
“If we cannot hear each other talk, how will the meadowlarks communicate and find a mate?” Heinrich said.
Midewin measures 30 square miles. But stand at any spot within and one would be within two miles of roads and truck traffic.
Noise travels at least a mile from each direction and even further in open areas, he said.
“Grassland birds are not backyard birds. They do not adapt — they disappear. They need a breeding ground. They need to attract a mate,” he said.
Noise and visual impacts will be dramatic and cannot be mitigated, they said, and they fear what such impacts will do over time — not just to Midewin, but also to Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, which shares the former arsenal property, on the west side of Route 53.
Schab said the intermodal facilities brought more trucks past Midewin and the cemetery. More industrial uses followed, and with Illiana, more are to come.
“They just keep chipping away at the ambiance of the silent prairie,” Schab said. “Do we just chip away with every new need?”
The Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery is the second-largest national cemetery, with several burials a day.
“They deserve to have a peaceful and tranquil environment for their services” and a funeral procession uninterrupted by truck traffic, Heinrich said.
Midewin and the cemetery are not within any local jurisdiction, which makes it a difficult situation, Heinrich said.
“There’s a lot of frustration out here. It’s hard to find someone to listen to us. Three congressional districts touch Midewin, but no one wants to say they are against jobs. Who can argue with jobs, jobs, jobs. But that refrain is being used without thought for the future,” Heinrich said. “They are not addressing adverse affects, just jobs and economic development. We’re not against that, but they are moving forward without looking at the big picture.
“This is basically the country’s largest intermodal complex. Illiana will promote traffic on 53, Hoff Road and South Arsenal Road — all roads that border Midewin. They need to look at cumulative effects. They have to come together and develop a regional plan.”
(Editor’s note: The Midewin Heritage Alliance, to which Schab belongs, is involved in lawsuits against the state with other environmental groups, claiming that the state’s environmental studies on the Illiana are flawed.)
As Schab guides his visitors to the farms and grave sites of the early settlers, past the remaining historic buildings, he tries to take them back to a time long before the land was taken over by the federal government for use as an arsenal.
Then, as now, “People had so much ill feelings about the government taking their land for the arsenal. And now they’re taking more land (for Illiana). It’s depressing,” he said. “It goes beyond the immediate impacts.
“If you’re less than 3,000 feet from a tollway, it diminishes what you are trying to convey about farm life out here,” Schab said.
Old buildings, such as a one-room schoolhouse, had to be moved to make room for the arsenal and now are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
But, as Schab said, unlike landowners affected by the proposed Illiana tollway, “Midewin can not move.”