Protecting the Prairie

In 1993, when the U.S. Army decommissioned a former World War II ammunition plant, Openlands saw an opportunity to return the vast landscapes dotted with bunkers to historic prairie on an unprecedented scale. Openlands led dialogue among 23 diverse members of a citizen’s planning commission in 1994 to reserve 20,000 acres to create Midewin, the first National Tallgrass Prairie. It prepared the 1995 Joliet Arsenal Land Use Concept Map to reach consensus on carving the Army facility into a blend of land uses, including Midewin, the Abraham Lincoln National Veteran’s Cemetery, industrial facilities, and an Army training area. On February 10, 1996, President Clinton signed the Illinois Land Conservation Act, and Midewin was born. Since then, Midewin has become an anchor and crown jewel of 27 state and federally protected natural areas, known as the Prairie Parklands.

Openlands continues to help Midewin evolve into a world-class 20,000-acre federal natural area within reach of millions of people in the Chicago region. We have helped the U.S. Forest Service acquire and restore its landscapes and the surrounding Prairie Parklands, and are collaborating with partners on a new learning center. Through Openlands’ Birds in my Neighborhood program, students and their families have been introduced to globally imperiled grassland birds, bison, and other wildlife that has returned to the prairie.

Openlands is dedicated to protecting what it saves.

Over the last two decades, Openlands has fought proposals that would ruin Midewin’s globally imperiled habitat and stunt its potential. We defended against abuses of arcane easements that run through some of the rarest habitat in the world, and continue to refute projects, like the proposed Illiana Tollway, that would throw light, noise, and pollution into the quiet prairie, driving out wildlife that need Midewin to exist. We helped communities question a proposal by NorthPoint to build a 2,200-acre intermodal facility over agricultural lands that are both valuable in their own right and serve as an important buffer around Midewin.

At Openlands, while we have the wherewithall to say no, we also are driven to collaborate with industry and communities to find a way for everyone to succeed, so that we don’t artificially sacrifice the value of our natural and agricultural heritage.  We see this as a false and unnecessary choice. We understand that it is not only possible, but critical that the rich balance of uses that it helped to create 30 years ago withstands the test of time.

To do this, Openlands draws upon decades of expertise in law, advocacy, and planning to gain consensus from businesses, government officials, and the communities at stake on strategies for freight and intermodal facilities that complement agriculture and enhance – rather than destroy – our globally important lands and waters in the Midewin area. We focus the voice and expertise of our coalition of 30 organizations to negotiate smart transportation and development solutions for Midewin and the region.

Our approach is embedded in the recent Will County Community Freight Mobility Plan, which uses performance metrics to protect natural and agricultural resources and calls for a comprehensive transportation and land use plan for South Will County. We shape policies and principles at a regional level by successfully advocating for transportation alternatives, such as improving Interstate 80, in lieu of the Illiana Tollway in our comprehensive GO TO 2040 plan and the upcoming ON TO 2050 plan. We continue to advocate to the state and federal legislature to fund and authorize projects that secure a vibrant healthy future for Midewin, the surrounding agricultural communities, and the people of our region.

For more information on Openlands advocacy in support of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, please contact policy@openlands.org.