Midewin prairie ‘rarer than the rarest rain forest’
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com August 4, 2014 5:36PM
Executive Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center Howard A. Learner talks about the negative impact the proposed Illiana tollway project would have on wildlife and plants at The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington, IL on Monday, August 04, 2014 | Sean King / For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 6, 2014 6:04AM
From atop a small ridge, the prairie and open space extend as far as the eyes can see.
The showy yellow partridge pea plants and round-headed bush clovers dot the landscape, with a few remaining bunkers from the land’s previous life as the Joliet Arsenal.
The activity of the World War II arsenal has given way to the much more peaceful Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. And at 18 years of age, Midewin still is in its infancy as a restored Illinois prairie.
Even standing in the midst of it, it is hard to grasp the magnitude of this 19,000-acre project.
That’s what officials from Openlands, The Wetlands Initiative, Chicago Wilderness and the Environmental Law and Policy Center tried to do Monday as they conducted a behind-the-scenes media tour led by Midewin’s senior ecologist, Gary Sullivan.
They explained their vision for Midewin and showed what its rare and fragile ecosystems are up against as they battle the Illinois Department of Transportation over the proposed Illiana tollway, which could run along the southern edge of the prairie, filling the prairie with noise and pollution.
With less than one-tenth of 1 percent of tallgrass prairies left, Midewin is “truly unique,” Sullivan said.
“It’s rarer than the rarest rain forest,” said Stacy Meyers, Openlands policy coordinator.
Route 53 now bisects Midewin’s land and has become a truck route serving the nearby intermodal facilities.
“The amount of truck traffic now is one thing, but it’s nothing like the amount of trucks that will be here if Illiana is at the southern border,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “Take that amount of traffic and put it on steroids.”
According to Meyers, IDOT claimed that only 149 acres at Midewin’s southern edge will be impacted.
“This place is teeming with life. Birds need thousands of acres to survive,” she said. “It’s for people who want to come back and see what Illinois looked like and what we lost.”
And they don’t want to lose it again.
With its ridges, streams, meadows, wetlands and carefully restored prairie expanses, Midewin is described by Sullivan and Meyers as a “mosaic” and a “patchwork quilt” of many different elements and ecosystems interacting together and depending on each other.
In Midewin’s short life, its stewards have tried to bring back endangered plants such as the leafy prairie clover and the royal catchfly.
Because of the restoration effort here, the Henslow’s sparrow is no longer on the endangered species list, they said.
The still-developing 60-acre wetland may not look like much on the surface, but it is home to 80 different species, Sullivan said.
The last stop on the tour is the South Patrol Road prairie — part of that south border that will be impacted by the Illiana and still fragile enough to be kept behind a locked gate.
It was a field of corn and soybeans just 13 years ago, said Paul Botts, executive director of The Wetlands Initiative.
After 11 years of taking out rail lines, roads and ditches and planting seeds, this is characteristic of what a prairie can be, Sullivan said.
A few in the group wade through the chest-high plants and grasses, as Sullivan names a few.
“There are 200 species right in front of you,” he said to the group.
Plants, small insects and birds, such as the king rail and American bittern, thrive here, he said.
“There are only a handful of places where they are all found together, and this is one of them,” Sullivan said. “This is an example of the promise of Midewin.”
“This is what is endangered if we have a tollway just past those trees,” Botts said, gesturing to the south.
On behalf of these environmental groups, the Environmental Law and Policy Center filed two lawsuits against the proposed tollway project.
One lawsuit addresses the impacts on Midewin. It would not stop the Illiana, the policy center’s Learner said, but it would require the Federal Highway Administration to take a closer look at the impacts and consider other alternatives.
A second lawsuit, challenging the approval process, could stop it in its tracks, Learner said.
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) board rejected including the Illiana in its 2040 transportation plan, but when one of its committees approved it, IDOT took that as a green light, Learner said.
If the Environmental Law and Policy Center wins that lawsuit, the Illiana project could not go forward with public funding, unless the CMAP board reverses its decision, he said.
Meyers said she hopes CMAP will come back with a solution that will address everyone’s needs.
The tollway is not a done deal. Last month, officials said land on the Illinois side will not be acquired before winter. That’s the latest estimate as to when Illinois officials expect federal approval — a Record of Decision — on the proposed 47-mile road from Wilmington, Illinois, to Lowell, Indiana.
If the decision comes this winter, the state plans to move quickly on the project and could begin construction in late 2015 or early 2016.