Executive Vice President Ray Foote reflects on his visit to Illinois' Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

This week, I was reminded that there’s really no shade on the prairie. I was at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie for a couple of days to work alongside a wonderful array of people all helping restore the native plants that make tallgrass prairies wonders of nature. It was hot, it was humid, and it was great. 

Named for the Potawatomi word meaning ‘place of healing,’ Midewin is a unit of the National Forest System about an hour southwest of Chicago. The NFF and many partners have been helping the U.S. Forest Service return this former military facility to its native tallgrass beauty. This huge, multi-year project is being powered by partnerships with nonprofits (like us), by companies, by philanthropists, by civic groups, and more. 

Those partnerships were certainly on display this week as we welcomed volunteers and interns from Exelon, REI, and Southwest Airlines to join us in a fun project: planting Prairie Violets. These unassuming plants provide critical food for the Regal Fritellary caterpillar which, yes, becomes a stunning butterfly. 

After two centuries of farming and industrial use, these lands don’t have much “native” stock left, so species like the Prairie Violet need a helping hand to get reestablished. The violet is one small part of the puzzle; I learned (and was amazed) that a robust tallgrass prairie can boast as many as 250 species of plants! They also store huge amounts of carbon and provide excellent habitat for birds and mammals.

Each of these three companies is involved with the NFF in a unique way. Southwest is providing travel vouchers for NFF staff on business travel nationwide and support for our Treasured Landscapes projects in southern California and Colorado. REI is supporting ten conservation projects across America with a focus on getting people outside. Exelon has been the lead sponsor of our Midewin Youth Corps which brings high-schoolers out from the city for six weeks to do hands-on restoration and get a crash course in environmental science. We are grateful for these companies’ investments and their interest in sharing how employees and others can get involved. 

Having grown up in Louisiana, I have to admit I’m still kind of getting my arms around the whole Midwestern prairie thing. The wonders prairies work with insects and water and plants are low key. Their beauty is subtle. But I’ve learned enough to know these places matter. Midewin mattes. 

My time there this week bought moments of inspiration in seeing a landscape being returned to its native form and function. Seeing volunteers and kids and companies joining together at this place that is coming back. Yes, a place of healing. 

Hear from volunteer and Southwest employee Mark Miller about why he volunteers at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. 

National Forest Foundation