I spent my summer in Chicago helping to develop a business plan for Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. The basic idea is to accelerate restoration of the Midewin landscape by providing a pair of documents that the National Forest Foundation and Midewin’s other partners will be able to use as fundraising tools.
One of the documents will be short and convey a grand vision for Midewin. The other, longer document, which has been my main focus, will detail the exact steps and resources necessary to fully restore the prairie.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie presents both huge challenges and huge opportunities. On one hand, it would be hard to find a landscape that has taken more of a beating. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, farmers plowed most of the native prairie in the area. From World War II until 1996, when Midewin became the country’s first National Tallgrass Prairie, the U.S. Army used the site as a munitions production facility.
Today Midewin harbors only a tiny amount of native habitat, but a huge amount of deteriorating infrastructure. And yet, Midewin wouldn’t exist were it not for its history as an Army facility. Thanks to World War II, Vietnam and Korea, 20,000 acres of open space sits, intact and protected, within 60 miles of Chicago and three of Illinois’ other fastest growing metropolitan areas.
My summer internship related directly to the challenges and opportunities inherent to Midewin, and had three main components. Midewin needed a business plan because the challenge of restoring the landscape exceeds the capabilities of any one segment of society. Private donations will be necessary to supplement public appropriations; education, advocacy, and outreach initiatives carried out by non-profit institutions will have to supplement Forest Service tours and volunteer programs.
As the on-the-ground contact for a team consisting of two National Forest Foundation staff members and two consultants from Bernuth and Williamson, my first task was to collect and organize data about the physical work that needs to be done to restore Midewin. At the same time, I met with Midewin’s major stakeholders and helped to coordinate a series of group stakeholder meetings. Finally, near the end of my time in Chicago, I began to work on drafting portions of a detailed planning document.
My work gave me a visceral understanding of the complexity of the coalitions necessary to bring major conservation projects to fruition. I spent a lot of my time at the prairie, working with Forest Service staff to understand everything from the costs of removing ammunition bunkers to the habitat requirements of bison. On other occasions, I found myself backstage at museums and botanical gardens, or in the downtown Chicago offices of conservation organizations and government agencies.
Several days started with a tie and ended with ticks and hiking boots. The experience was exhilarating, and taught me a number of lessons that will stand me in a good stead wherever my career takes me. I learned how to represent myself and the National Forest Foundation’s mission to engage people with a wide array of perspectives. I also learned how to quickly make course corrections when problems arose. Above all, I learned the value of transparency and good communication.
Through my work I also developed my own perspective on conservation. Restoring a place like Midewin is an expensive and difficult proposition. People I met both on and off the job regularly posed a certain kind of question: Why should we restore this particular landscape? Is it worth it? I grew up on the Great Plains, and have had a lifelong fascination with grassland places. For me, the answer seemed obvious: Tallgrass prairie is exceedingly rare and really cool. Of course it’s worth it. Yet as I spoke with different people my perspective changed. I began to see the real value embodied by Midewin as being less about nature itself, and more about the chance to connect a large and diverse group of people with nature and the history of a place.
Seen from this perspective, restoration becomes less of an obstacle to be overcome and more of an opportunity to engage people in learning about the area where they live. I think that perspective will continue to influence me in my studies and work for a long time to come.