National Forest Foundation

Restoring A Lost Landscape at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Restoring A Lost Landscape at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie turns 25 this year! Celebrate Midewin’s Silver Anniversary with a visit to the prairie.

Midewin offers a plethora of opportunities to get outside. Although the Welcome Center is closed, Midewin’s 34 miles of trails and other outdoor opportunities have remained open to visitors throughout the pandemic.

Opportunities to explore Midewin include:

  • 22 miles of trail for shared use by hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians and over 12 miles for hiking only.
  • Picnic areas, including one near the seedbeds where Midewin grows much of the native seed that is used to restore the prairie.
  • Learn about Midewin’s mobile app for self-guided tours.
  • Bison! The bison are out, no matter the weather. Consider a visit (and if you miss them, you can always check the bison cam).
  • Short eared owls have recently been very visible hunting for voles. The Forest Service has posted some amazing photos on theMidewin NTP Twitter feed.
  • Visit Midewin’s web page and other social media. The Forest Service does a great job of highlighting the nature and history of Midewin.

On February 10, 2021, the NFF hosted a 25th Anniversary celebration event featuring a keynote by famed journalist and radio broadcaster Bill Kurtis and a cooking demonstration with James Beard Award-winning Executive Chef Sarah Stegner. You can watch a recording here. Try out Sarah’s prairie-inspired recipe.

The Forest Service has created a year’s worth of activities and events to celebrate Midewin’s Silver Anniversary, including special Silver Anniversary hikes, a commemorative poster and button, an anniversary website that includes a Midewin timeline, and more.

For a full list of what’s happening, and to see a timeline of the past 25 years at Midewin, please visit the Forest Service’s page.

NFF's Treasured Landscape Restoration Work

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie’s history is a unique story of rebirth, which seems fitting for a landscape named after a Potawatomi word for “healing.”

A healthy tallgrass prairie is rarer than the rainforest and nearly as diverse. In addition, Midewin is the only tallgrass prairie managed by the Forest Service and the largest public land area in the Chicago region. Just one hour south of Chicago, Midewin provides recreational escape, abundant bird watching opportunities and a chance to check out a herd of wild bison. Midewin is not only rare, but as the southern anchor of the Chicago Wilderness Region, a 370,000-acre tract of protected lands across greater Chicago, it is also part of a large tapestry that is a critical resource for regional wildlife, migrating bird species and neighboring communities.

Before coming under management of the U.S. Forest Service, however, Midewin’s role was much different.

Within a few short generations of Euro-American settlers' arrival, Midewin, along with more than 99 percent of the Midwest’s biologically diverse landscape, was altered by agriculture and urbanization. Although Illinois is still known as the Prairie State, less than one-tenth of one percent of Illinois' original 21 million acres of prairie remains. What was once a vast sea of rich prairie now survives only as small, isolated fragments. Many species of prairie plants and animals have either disappeared or are in rapid decline due to loss of habitat.

In addition to conversion for agricultural production, Midewin housed the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. The ammunition plant was integral to the World War II war effort, employing 10,000 workers during the height of its operation, between 1942 and 1948, and producing over a billion tons of TNT throughout its lifetime. In 1996, in response to a grassroots effort, the Department of Defense transferred 20,000 acres to the U.S. Forest Service, establishing the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Midewin’s history of military and agricultural use left a landscape in decline, fragmented by bunkers, roads and rails and degraded by pollutants, invasive plants and modifications to wetlands and streams. The community began a large-scale restoration effort that is still underway today.

Having joined this effort in 2012, the NFF is committed to regaining some of what has been lost on a scale that can make a significant difference to the survival of threatened and endangered prairie species. Working together, the NFF, Midewin staff and The Wetlands Initiative have created an ambitious plan to restore a 4,000-acre swath of nearly contiguous tallgrass prairie across Midewin’s west side. By tying together previously restored areas, this project will leverage work that has already been complete to create connectivity across the prairie, dramatically enhancing habitat and ecosystem function on this critical landscape.

Once this project is complete, Midewin will boast more than double the amount of restored tallgrass prairie that exists if you were to bundle together all the remnant prairie sites throughout the entire state of Illinois!

This ambitious scope of work will cost $6,700,000 over seven years and is being made possible through a highly leveraged partnership with the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley and Grand Victoria Foundations and the Forest Service. Through this public-private partnership, every $1 the NFF raises up to $2,000,000 will be leveraged by more than $2.70 in additional funding for a total possible match of $4,700,000.

Through this new public-private partnership, we will more than double the results we have already achieved at Midewin. An opportunity to affect change at this scale comes along only once in a generation.

Since 2012, the NFF has invested more than $3,000,000 in removing old road beds and rail lines and 16 bunkers, restoring hundreds of acres of native prairie habitat, reintroducing a herd of wild bison and facilitating of the Midewin stakeholders group. For the last five summers, we've also brought youth from North Lawndale College Prep High School to Midewin for six-week long summer work programs. The students earn money, gain valuable work skills, and learn about the prairie environment and about careers in conservation.

If you’re inspired by Midewin’s fascinating history and current restoration, plan a visit or better yet, support our efforts here. Through the challenge grant described above, every $10 we raise results in nearly $40 in on-the-ground work and every $1,000 raised restores one acre.

Bison at Midewin

While outside the Treasured Landscapes project scope, the NFF worked closely with the Forest Service and partners to return bison to Illinois prairie. In the fall of 2015, 27 bison arrive at Midewin to continue restoration efforts. The herd has since added 11 new calves! Learn more here or watch the video below.