Openlands and the Wetlands Initiative team up to restore wetlands at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Openlands, together with partner Wetlands Initiative, have teamed up to transform an area the size of 1,000 football fields into healthy prairie, savanna and floodplain wetland habitats at the only national tallgrass prairie in the country.

By Huan Song, Yamys Urbano Valencia January 30

World Wetlands Day is February 2, and the Alliance is highlighting land trusts doing important work to protect these critical habitats. Keep checking out the blog the next couple of weeks for more stories!

Openlands, together with our partner the Wetlands Initiative, have teamed up to transform an area the size of 1,000 football fields into healthy prairie, savanna and floodplain wetland habitats. A $1.5 million America the Beautiful Challenge grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has been awarded to fund the project, titled “Grassland Habitat Expansion and Restoration across Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois,” which aims to enhance landscape-scale habitat restoration at the U.S. Forest Service’s Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County, Illinois, the first and only national tallgrass prairie in the country.

“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 the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and our federal partners at the U.S. Forest Service for this consequential support.”

The America the Beautiful Challenge, 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, the restoration and planning staff officer at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

The grant is one of 74 America the Beautiful Challenge grants awarded nationwide in 2023.

“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,” said Paul Botts, president and executive director of the Wetlands Initiative.

A small bird with brown and tan markings perches on prairie grass.

Native to North America, tallgrass prairie once covered a large portion of the American Midwest, with tallgrass species such as Indiangrass, big bluestem and others averaging five to six feet in height and creating 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 — a disturbing trend in a state nicknamed the “Prairie State.” And, as tallgrass prairies have disappeared, grassland birds are now among the most vulnerable groups of birds in the U.S. and depend on the protection of our remaining grasslands.

The disappearance of grassland ecosystems in Illinois is a driving factor behind Openlands’ work to also preserve the Joliet Training Area just outside Chicago. As the heads of Openlands, Wetlands Initiative and Sierra Club-Illinois wrote in an op-ed published recently in the Chicago Sun-Times, “[l]ess than an hour south of Chicago lies our region’s most substantial investment opportunity: the Joliet Training Area, a 3,000-acre landscape operated by the U.S. military directly north of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. With encroaching development pressure, diminishing water supply and increasing truck traffic, the future of this area is at a crossroads.”

Our goal is to see Congress permanently transfer the Joliet Training Area to the U.S. Forest Service at Midewin.

Beginning in early 2024, the Midewin 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. 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. The work will significantly improve habitat connectivity for grassland birds, reduce invasive species pressure and facilitate future prairie and wetland restoration projects. The project will also increase recreational opportunities for birding, walking, biking and bison viewing, and all less than an hour from one of America’s densest urban centers – Chicago.

A flock of birds takes flight above a herd of bison grazing on prairie grass.

In 1996, advocacy efforts by Openlands and a coalition of 23 partners led to President Bill Clinton signing legislation to formally establish the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, to be administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Today, more than 25 years since its establishment, Midewin 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.

The America the Beautiful Challenge 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, paving the way for one of the largest contiguous landscape restoration efforts in northeastern Illinois.

Read the full op-ed entitled “For conservation’s sake, transfer Joliet Training Area to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie” here, written by Michael Davidson, president and CEO of Openlands; Paul Botts, president and executive director of the Wetlands Initiative; and Jack Darin, chapter director of Sierra Club-Illinois.

How can you help protect wetlands?

Openlands is just one of countless Alliance member land trusts working on wetlands protection and restoration in every corner of the U.S., and we recommend checking out our Find a Land Trust tool to find a land trust doing amazing work near you.

Another big thing you can do is tell Congress to get a new Farm Bill passed this year. The Farm Bill is the largest single federal source of funding for voluntary private land conservation in the U.S., funding programs that help protect, restore and enhance wetlands like the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership. So, reach out to your members of Congress — your House Representative and your two Senators — and ask them to show their support for wetlands by passing a new Farm Bill in 2024 that includes the Land Trust Alliance’s 2024 Farm Bill recommendations.

Find you members of Congress

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