Openlands and the Wetlands Initiative awarded historic $1.5M for grassland habitat expansion and restoration at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie


A flock of birds flying over Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
A flock of birds soar over Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, where a herd of bison plays a vital role in grassland habitat restoration. Photo by Preston Keres, USDA Forest Service.

Openlands, the Wetlands Initiative, and the U.S. Forest Service to collaborate on the largest landscape in northeastern Illinois, home to globally-rare habitat and herd of American bison.


Huan Song, Director of Communications

Yamys Urbano Valencia, Bilingual PR and Communications Specialist
(415) 712-5427

(Chicago, IL – DECEMBER 1, 2023) Openlands, together with our partner the Wetlands Initiative (TWI) has received a $1.5 million America the Beautiful Challenge (ATBC) grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF). The awarded project, titled “Grassland Habitat Expansion and Restoration across Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois,” aims to enhance landscape-scale habitat restoration at the U.S. Forest Service’s Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County, the first and only national tallgrass prairie in the country. The project focuses on Grant Creek, a Forest Service-designated Priority Watershed, and aims to transform an area the size of 1,000 football fields into healthy prairie, savanna, and floodplain wetland habitats.

“Midewin is one of the most important conservation initiatives in Illinois of the 20th century and serves as a model for the conservation of surplus federal property to public open space,” said Michael Davidson, President and CEO of Openlands. “Openlands has been a key partner in its creation, and we are committed to its ongoing restoration, its protection through advocacy, and its promotion as a major regional asset. This grant is a landmark conservation win for our region’s people and natural environment and we are grateful to NFWF and our federal partners at the U.S. Forest Service for this consequential support.”

ATBC, now in its second year, funds high-priority and locally led projects that support wildlife habitat while improving community resilience and access to nature. Grant awards were made possible with funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act, and other federal conservation programs and private sources.

“We are thrilled that Openlands and the Wetlands Initiative have been awarded this prestigious grant that will allow them to leverage their, and our, investments and contributions to our grassland habitat expansion and restoration efforts on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie,” said Shanna McCarty, Restoration and Planning Staff Officer at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (Midewin NTP).

Jointly, Openlands and TWI received one of 74 ATBC grants awarded nationwide in 2023. Paul Botts, President and Executive Director at TWI said, “For Midewin to be the focus of the first America the Beautiful Challenge grant yet awarded solely in Illinois, is a great example of the strong spirit of collaboration among all the organizations and agencies involved at the nation’s first National Tallgrass Prairie.”

Native to North America, the tallgrass prairie once covered a large portion of the American Midwest. Tall grass species such as Indiangrass, big bluestem, and others average five to six feet in height and create a complex ecosystem that hosts many plants, insects, and birds. Illinois prairies are globally imperiled because most have been converted to other land uses and only fragments of the original tallgrass prairie ecosystem remain in a state with the official nickname “Prairie State.” In turn, grassland birds are among the most vulnerable groups of birds in the United States that depend on the protection of remaining grasslands.

Beginning in early 2024, this project will connect and take initial steps of habitat improvement on 1,321 acres, an area nearly the size of 1,000 football fields, within Midewin’s Grant Creek Priority Watershed. This grant kicks off the first phase of a major, multi-year plan to restore and re-meander Grant Creek, the first U.S. Forest Service-designated priority watershed in Illinois. The target restoration site shares a mile-long border with the existing 1,200-acre bison pasture grassland complex and represents a unique opportunity to restore an entire stream corridor.

A Henslow's Sparrow perched on a plant
Henslow’s Sparrow (Centronyx henslowii) is a grassland bird species that faces rapid population decline due to habitat loss. Photo by Bill Glass

Results of this effort will significantly improve habitat connectivity especially for grassland birds, reduce invasive species pressure, and facilitate future prairie and wetland restoration projects. Furthermore, this project will increase recreational opportunities for birding, walking, biking, and bison viewing – less than an hour from one of America’s dense urban centers – Chicago.

Both the Wetlands Initiative and Openlands have a longstanding history and close partnership with the U.S. Forest Service at Midewin NTP, dating back to its designation. Before becoming a public open space, this area was the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, purchased by the federal government in 1940. This plant produced a record 1 billion pounds of TNT during WWII and over 926 million bombs, shells, and mines. Most of this production ceased by 1976, and in 1993 the plant, now named the Joliet Arsenal, was declared surplus.

Openlands along with a coalition of 23 partners, started advocacy for the establishment, restoration, and protection of this land. In 1995, Congress enacted 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. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed legislation to formally establish the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie administered by the U.S. Forest Service.

Since 1997, TWI has partnered with USFS in on-the-ground restoration of diverse, high-quality prairie and wetland habitats at Midewin NTP. To date, TWI’s Midewin NTP field restoration crew has collaboratively restored nearly 3,400 acres to a healthy prairie-wetland landscape on Midewin NTP’s west side. Both TWI and Openlands play an active role in the Midewin Stakeholders Group, a coalition of the Forest Service’s private partners at Midewin NTP which regularly meets to discuss strategy and future planning for the vast site.

Now, more than 25 years since its establishment, Midewin NTP is home to a herd of approximately 70 bison that were reintroduced to the site in 2015 and welcomes thousands of visitors annually who come for its historical, archeological, and natural attractions.
“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 Botts.

This grant, accompanied by an additional $375K in matching funds the partners are now working to acquire, will total $1.875M and take just over two years to complete. It will pave the way for one of the largest contiguous landscape restoration efforts in northeastern Illinois. Those interested in supporting the project can contact Openlands Vice President of Conservation and Policy, Emily Reusswig, to learn more at


About Openlands 

Founded in 1963, Openlands protects the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region to ensure cleaner air and water, protect natural habitats and wildlife, and help balance and enrich our lives. As Chicago’s regional land trust, Openlands connects and energizes the region through strategic collaboration and local partnerships. From establishing city parks and trails to stewarding large-scale landscapes and waters in northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region, Openlands is committed to advancing nature-based solutions to mitigate the threats of biodiversity loss and climate change and create access to nature for all. For more information, please visit

About the Wetlands Initiative

The Wetlands Initiative (TWI) designs, restores, and creates wetlands in Illinois and Northwest Indiana. We innovate, collaborate, and employ sound science in pursuit of our vision of a world with plentiful healthy wetlands improving water quality, climate resilience, biodiversity, and human well-being. TWI has worked closely with the Forest Service to carry out on-the-ground habitat restoration projects at Midewin since 1997, and is now wrapping up a major seven-year restoration project transforming 1,900-plus acres back to a rich prairie-wetland landscape. Visit for more information.

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