Voices unite for Joliet Training Area transfer to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

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At the heart of civic discourse, voices converge to advocate for a critical cause: the transfer of the Joliet Training Area to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. As evidenced by the passionate pleas captured in the pages of the Chicago Sun Times, which previously published an op-ed written by leaders of Openlands, Wetlands Initiative and Sierra Club Illinois. For this reason, communities come together in a resounding call for conservation and restoration. In this compilation, we illuminate the profound meaning of these five letters to the editor, each of which is a testament to the shared commitment to preserving our natural heritage and fostering a sustainable future.

Don’t wait any longer to make Joliet acreage part of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Too much open space has been lost to development in the area. What’s needed most is to conserve land and habitat for endangered species and recreation.

I whole-heartedly agree with the op-ed appeal for transferring the modest acreage of the Joliet Training Area to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. It is the least that state and federal representatives involved in the proposed transfer can do on behalf of land and species conservation. 

If there is any doubt, I encourage readers to do a Google Maps search of the Joliet Training Area just north and adjacent to Midewin and see the relative size and scope of these national natural treasures, contrasted with the surrounding development that has occurred over the last two decades. 

The unrestrained development outside the boundaries of both the Training Area and Midewin reveal just how much open space has been lost to the intermodal rail system and warehouse developments.

We have a lot more land conservation work to do if we hope to get anywhere close to protecting 30% of the Illinois landscape by 2030, as the authors advocate. The transfer is a vitally important, albeit small step, in the right direction.

Andrew J. Neill, Joliet

Finish what started 30 years ago

There’s been a renewed effort over the past year to finally transfer the old Joliet Army Training Area to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie just outside Joliet, a transfer mandated in 1996 in the Illinois Land Conservation Act that created Midewin as America’s first national tallgrass prairie. We write in full support of this effort.

Activated by the closing of the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant and with the support of the entire Illinois congressional delegation, then-Gov. Jim Edgar and a citizen-led planning committee formed by Congressman George Sangmeister developed a reuse proposal, creating Midewin. At 19,000-acres, it is one of the state’s premiere wildlife preserves, large enough for bison to roam, and within 40 minutes from Chicago. 

Since then, much of the area surrounding the JTA has been transformed into vast freight centers, and the Army is increasingly being pressured to allow for new roads and railways to serve this expanding commercial network. This vast land of woods, seeps, rare prairies, and wetlands is a resource for our entire region, offering habitat for rare and endangered species and recreation for all of us who call Chicagoland home.

Many of our members worked with those visionary private citizens and public officials to make Midewin a reality. After almost 30 years, we believe the time has come to finish what they began and transfer the JTA to Midewin.

Amy Doll, director, Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves

Another vote to transfer Joliet Training Area to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

As the recent Joliet water deal demonstrates, Illinois must not continue to take our access to fresh, clean water for granted. For this reason, Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) endorses the Jan. 5 op-ed by leaders of Openlands, the Wetlands Initiative, and Sierra Club-Illinois. Their argument underscores that investing in nature through the transfer of the Joliet Training Area (JTA) to the U.S. Forest Service at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is an investment in the health and sustainability of our region.

For 90 years, MPC has championed thoughtful planning and inclusive growth policies that build equity in the environment. Permanent conservation and restoration of JTA is just one of the many actions to establish an equitable, climate-resilient future for Joliet and the Chicago region, but we should not let the scale of collective action cause us to miss this generational opportunity.

How would transfer of the JTA support our region’s access to freshwater? The industrial development that surrounds this vital landscape has propelled the region’s economic growth. However, this growth has also forced Joliet and neighboring communities to face an existential crisis first identified in the 1950s: depletion of local groundwater from the sandstone aquifer below. This crisis led to the creation of the Grand Prairie Water Commission and a 100-year, multi-billion-dollar deal to secure Lake Michigan water from the City of Chicago for the region. 

While that deal is an important fix for Joliet, it does little to address the underlying problem for the region: groundwater that once bubbled from the surface has been depleted far beyond sustainable levels, in some areas to more than 800 feet below the surface. Action by Congress to steward the transfer of this land to Midewin reinforces the efforts of local leaders who have worked so hard to keep the taps flowing. 

MPC urges Congress to support sustainable growth of the region and transfer the JTA to the U.S. Forest Service at Midewin. It’s easy to forget after two federally declared flood disasters struck the region last year, that Illinois started the summer with widespread drought conditions. With projected temperature increases, every investment we make in nature-based climate solutions, gets us closer to reaching the goal of ensuring equitable access to clean water and realizing a climate-resilient future.

Ryan Wilson, senior manager, Metropolitan Planning Council, Chicago

Transfer Joliet Training Area to Midewin

Thirty-one years ago, I served on the 24-member Joliet Arsenal Citizens Planning Committee formed by then-U.S. Rep. George Sangmeister to determine the future uses of the 23,000-acre former Army munitions plant.

Out of this planning process came the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, two industrial zones, a county landfill and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

During the planning process, the committee foresaw the adjacent Joliet Army Training Area would itself someday be declared surplus due to development pressures all around it. The Joliet Training Area was part of the arsenal’s original footprint, as was the 170-acre Cantigny Woods, previously owned by the Forest Preserve of Will County, and they share a two-mile boundary. The connection was clear.

To ensure the approximate 3,000-acre area be kept as open space, and not wanting to go through another protracted planning process, the committee unanimously approved the plan with the Joliet Army Training Area as a future addition to Midewin.

Shepherded through Congress by then-U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller, the plan was codified into law by the Illinois Land Conservation Act of 1995. The committee’s foresight has proven to be spot-on because 29 years later, the area is now flanked by over 11,000 acres of intermodal facilities and over 1,000 new homes.

It’s important to transfer the Joliet Training Area to Midewin because the land is home to globally rare examples of dolomite prairie, rare species, sedge meadows, the Millsdale Seeps, Jackson Creek, Jackson Creek Woods, Cantigny Woods and access to over a mile of the Des Plaines River shoreline. Moreover, it represents the work of dedicated citizens, bipartisan agreement among elected officials and the statewide support of conservation and veteran’s organizations that worked to pass the Midewin legislation.

With increasing development pressure reducing the buffer around the Joliet Training Area, the Army may see it as more valuable as a real estate asset than a training area. Without congressional intervention, the Army may make incremental and irrevocable decisions that will jeopardize the commitment of the Forest Service to accept the land and thus diminish its future use.

The current Illinois delegation and Gov. J.B. Pritzker should fulfill the vision that created America’s first National Tallgrass Prairie.

Francis M. Harty, Monticello
Former Department of Conservation representative, Sangmeister/Weller Joliet Arsenal Citizens Committee

Another endorsement for Joliet Army Training Area transfer

It was with great satisfaction that I read the op-ed “For conservation’s sake, transfer Joliet Training Area to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie” in the Sun-Times on Jan. 5.

Back in 1996, many conservation organizations, including ours, worked with the Illinois delegation and Gov. Jim Edgar to establish the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Wilmington. We fully support this renewed effort to transfer the Joliet Army Training Area to Midewin and finalize the vision we all had over 28 years ago. Doing so would protect wildlife habitat and improve water and air quality, while helping to ensure climate resiliency.

Since 2002, much of the area surrounding Midewin and the Training Area has been transformed from farmland into industrial complexes. Transferring the Training Area to Midewin now would ensure it stays natural and open in a part of the state that needs it the most.

Midewin and Yellowstone share a history. Yellowstone is America’s first national park, and Midewin is America’s first national tallgrass prairie. The first bison herd to be released at Midewin had animals from Yellowstone’s wild bison herd. Midewin is special, it brought to life the vision of restored prairie on a large scale in our Prairie State.

Brook McDonald, president and CEO, The Conservation Foundation, Naperville

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