From Bunkers to Bison

In 1993, when the U.S. Army declared the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant as excess property, Openlands saw an opportunity to create a world-class urban open space in northeastern Illinois. We played a leadership role among the 23 members of the Joliet Arsenal Citizens Planning Commission in 1994. The 1995 Joliet Arsenal Land Use Concept Map was prepared by Openlands to create a framework for the arsenal’s land. Throughout 1995, supporters advocated for passage of legislation that would make the plan a reality.

On February 10, 1996, President Clinton signed the Illinois Land Conservation Act creating Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the largest piece of protected open space in northeastern Illinois.


The word “Midewin” means “healing society” in the Potawatomi language. After the creation of Midewin, Openlands worked in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and other organizations to develop The Prairie Plan for the restoration of a unique prairie ecosystem with unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation, wildlife viewing, environmental education, research, and volunteerism. Midewin is now considered a model process for conversion of surplus federal property to public open space.

The importance of Midewin cannot be overstated. Its expansiveness makes it ideal habitat for grassland birds, and it is one of the largest habitats for these species in the upper Midwest. The size of the place also makes it ideal for the reintroduction of the American Bison. In the autumn of 2014, the U.S. Forest Service did just that. It is a feat of ecological stewardship that would have seemed unimaginable a generation ago. The Forest Service will measure how beneficial bison grazing patterns are to tallgrass prairie ecosystem and grassland bird habitat.

The land continues to heal as restoration projects by an array of organizations and agencies restore native ecosystems.

Continuing the Work

Today, Openlands is continuing its progress on implementing five restoration projects selected for funding under the O’Hare Modernization Mitigation Account (OMMA). The latest of the five OMMA projects where field work is underway is the 205-acre Drummond Floodplain restoration at Midewin. The Drummond project is an integral part of a larger landscape plan to restore dolomite prairie habitats on the west side of Midewin and to connect them to Grant Creek Prairie State Nature Preserve, which is owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. In addition to the Drummond Floodplain, Openlands’ staff continues to work with Midewin and the Forest Preserve District of Will County on potential land preservation, stream restoration, and trail initiatives connecting to Midewin.