From bunkers to bison at Midewin

Posted on November 14, 2011


There’s been a buzz about Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie for years. I remember the excitement when the U.S. army released the Joliet Arsenal land to U.S. Forest Service management in the mid-1990s.

It was big news from a big place — 19,000 acres big. (30 sq. miles)

Midewin (pronounced mid DAY win) is the first national tallgrass prairie in the country. It’s also the largest prairie restoration effort east of the Mississippi River. Less than 0.1% of the prairies that covered early North America remains.  It’s up to us to protect and restore what’s left.

I recently visited the property, located about 40 miles from Chicago in Wilmington, Illinois. A 2-hour tour barely scratched the surface. My guides from the U.S. Forest Service and National Forest Foundation took me to the west side of Midewin, where I could see the past, present and future of restoration work.

Midewin has a varied past — from prairie to farmland to the world’s largest bomb factory. At its high point during WW2,  this complex employed 10,000 people and made the equivalent of 290 atomic bombs every week. Several hundred TNT storage bunkers, railroads and other buildings are still there. And they’re downright eerie.

One of 400 remaining bunkers that housed TNT during WW2.

Many people and agencies are working together to bring Midewin full circle, returning it to prairie. I toured the Grant Creek area. The Wetlands Initiative is planting native species, removing invasive weeds and raising support to make it happen. (See a video of Tellabs volunteers working on this site in 2010.)

Years of hard work and dedication are paying off. The tallgrass prairie is coming back to life here. During my tour, we saw hummingbirds, deer, a red-headed woodpecker, blue heron, frogs, monarch butterflies, cows and countless other creatures and plants.

My favorite part of the vision for the future? Someday, they hope to reintroduce bison to Midewin. A herd of the iconic Amerian animal will likely draw many visitors from nearby Chicagoland. Hopefully, it will inspire even more support.

The Midewin Shared Vision Plan includes reintroducing bison, starting with a small herd that will eventually grow to 1,000. How. Cool. Is. THAT?!

The Tellabs Foundation recently provided funding to the National Forest Foundation and for its work to restore the South Prairie Creek area at Midewin. The Tellabs Foundation also previously funded The Wetlands Initiative for its work in the Grant Creek area.

Working together for more than a decade, several agencies have made solid progress. But it’s a big job. Lots left to do. Find out more in the 10-year Midewin Shared Vision Plan.