The transformation of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie from a former ammunition plant to a premiere natural area received a major boost from the federal government in the form of a $1.5 million America the Beautiful Challenge grant.
Openlands and the Wetlands Initiative announced receipt of the grant for their project to restore 1,321 acres — an area the size of more than 1,000 football fields — of prairie, savanna and floodplain wetland habitat at Midewin.
Openlands President and CEO Michael Davidson called the grant — one of 74 awarded nationwide — “a landmark conservation win for our region’s people and natural environment.”
The target restoration site shares a mile-long border with Midewin’s existing 1,200-acre bison pasture, where a small herd was introduced in 2015, and represents a unique opportunity to restore an entire stream corridor, according to Openlands.
Grassland birds — among the most vulnerable in the U.S. due to habitat loss — are expected to benefit significantly from improved habitat connectivity as a result of the planned restoration. The project will also tackle invasive species and will set the table for future prairie and wetland restoration.
Midewin was formally established in 1996 and is administered by the U.S. Forest Service.
The site was once home to the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant (later the Joliet Arsenal) and is known for producing a record 1 billion pounds of TNT during WWII. But by 1993, operations had all but ceased and the plant was declared surplus.
In 1995, prompted by the advocacy of a coalition of conservation organizations, including Openlands, Congress passed the Illinois Land Conservation Act which requires the U.S. Army to transfer lands of the Joliet Arsenal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture when they are no longer needed for military purposes.
The Wetlands Initiative has collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service on projects at Midewin for more than 25 years, its crews helping to restore nearly 3,400 acres of prairie-wetland landscape on Midewin’s west side.
“Building on the years of restoration and public-access success on the west side of this huge site, this new funding expands those improvements into Midewin’s even larger east side,” said Paul Botts, president and executive director at the Wetlands Initiative.
Openlands and the Wetlands Initiative are also both active members of the Midewin Stakeholders Group, a collection of private partners that regularly meets with the Forest Service to discuss strategy and future planning for the site.
Though the Midewin project is the only one entirely contained within Illinois to receive an America the Beautiful Challenge grant this round of funding, another program with ties to the state — Project Wingspan — was also among the grantees.
Project Wingspan will receive nearly $300,000 to help private landowners in Illinois and Indiana adopt conservation practices that support the habitat needs of at-risk grassland birds and pollinators including the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee.