The Midewin Prairie
By C2ST Staff
The Midewin (pronounced mi-DAY-win) National Tallgrass Prairie is located about 60 miles south of Chicago on Historic Route 66. Many trails are available for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Midewin offers an expansive 30-mile trail system — 8 miles for hiking and 22 miles for multi-use — Open to the public free of charge. It is a hidden gem in our backyard that must be visited as it celebrates its 25th Anniversary. C2ST recently hosted longtime Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie volunteers Greg DuBois, Ron Kapala, and Christina L. Sammet, Ph.D., for a discussion that took us on a journey to explore restored wetlands, prairies, and observe wildlife.
Learn about the history and geography of this very special place less than an hour from the city in the videos below. Be sure to check out our transcript of Q&As that didn’t make it into the videos!
Questions & Answers
Q: Is going off-trail recommended for someone new to the space? Is it safe?
A: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie has 13,000 acres of land open to the public. Off-trail exploration is encouraged, but is recommended for more seasoned visitors, as the area is quite large. Google Earth is a wonderful tool to use for off-trail exploration – you can get an excellent overhead view of the land.
Q: How was Midewin established in 1996 – what efforts lead to legislation?
A: The establishment of Midewin NTP began as a grass-roots effort with a few key individuals and organizations lobbying local and federal politicians. To learn more about the establishment of Midewin NTP and the years leading up to it you can watch a recording of a webinar titled “25 Years of Service and Restoration” https://usfs.adobeconnect.com/p6bvj92xpgri/
Q: What happens to the drainage tiles?
A: Most of the drainage tiles were disposed of after being dug up. We have saved a few for interpretive purposes.
Q: When is National Public Lands Day?
A: NPLD is celebrated on the 4th Saturday in September – this year it will be Saturday September 25th. The purpose of NPLD is to not only raise awareness of our nation’s public lands system, but encourage volunteerism as well. There will not be an in-person NPLD event this year at Midewin. For more info about NPLD, visit the website – National Public Lands Day | NEEF (neefusa.org)
Q: Did you say TNT? Was this from the ammunition stores? Have we eliminated the chemical remains to make the creeks safe?
A: Since 1998, teams of volunteers with Illinois RiverWatch Network have been collecting valuable water quality information at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Water samples are drawn from nine sites: Grant Creek (2 sites), Jackson Creek (2 sites); Jordan Creek (1); and Prairie Creek (4 sites). Later, trained eyes observe specimen samples through a microscope, which allows volunteers to determine the number and type of macroinvertebrates in the water. Stoneflies, damselflies, dragonflies, mayflies, and more macroinvertebrates are sure signs of healthy water. Teams also measure the width, velocity, temperature, and dissolved oxygen of waterways. In 2019, the U.S. Army and the USDA Forest Service received an award from the Environmental Protection Agency – EPA Recognizes Land Reuse Strides by U.S. Army, USDA Forest Service – Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
Q: Are areas of Midewin used for farming? When will this end?
A: There are currently about 3,500 acres of land on Midewin being farmed now. This land is leased to farmers through a special permit process. The farming provides a dual purpose – crops serve as a placeholder for land that is yet to be restored, and farming permits are a source of revenue for Midewin – income used to continue the restoration process. Continued agricultural use is one of the four primary purposes of the establishment of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
Q: Why would the army choose somewhere with so many ecosystems to build a base?
A: The U.S. Army had specific criteria for choosing a site to build an ammunition plant – they included:
- at least 200 miles from U.S borders
- nearby reliable transportation (railways, rivers)
- large labor force (Joliet, Chicago)
- far from highly populated areas in case of explosion
- relatively flat land
- cheap land
Q: Are there ways these bunkers can be/are used for conservation programs at Midewin?
A: Although bunker removal is part of the restoration process, some bunkers will remain to preserve their historical and educational significance. There are bunkers along the Group 63 Trail that are open so visitors can experience them- Trail Map
Q: How much space is 1800 acres? Is that about 5 miles?
A: 1800 acres is equivalent to about 3 square miles.
Q: How does Midewin decide which bison to send away?
A: We regularly coordinate with organizations with similar restoration and conservation education goals. Many are interested in establishing a herd of bison and integrating bison into their restoration process. Bison have been relocated to help organizations such as federally recognized tribes, educational institutions, government partners, and more further their goals. There are many inspiring stories. In April 2020, a calf was born to a bison that had been relocated in 2019 from Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie to Buffalo Rock State Park. At a time of great uncertainty in the communities, the calf brought joy to visitors and staff. In response to the timing of her birth, they decided to name the calf Hope.
You can read more about the Bison Experiment here – Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie – Resource Management (usda.gov)