Saturday, April 25, 2009

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Viewing a portion of a pond within the restored section of the prairie.
A nesting killdeer tries to scare us off near the Welcome Center.

A restored wetland at Midewin.

Last weekend we went on a trip to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Wilmington, Illinois. The trip was part of Science Chicago, which is a series of events with a science flair located around the Chicago area around the year (visits to the National Weather Service, museums, hospitals, Argonne, state parks, forest preserves, etc). We checked out the Welcome Center and the Horticulture Building, which is where seeds are cleaned and stored. We also saw the greenhouses and shade houses, where the rarer seedlings are cared for before being planted in the restored prairie.

Beyond getting a tour, we also went on a short hike through a restored section of the prairie. Additionally, we were able to do some conservation work. We cut out overgrown honeysuckle and piled it up for chipping (to be used on trails) and for fence building. Honeysuckle is an invasive species used by frontier farmers to define property lines. Now it fills in as brush and cuts off necessary sunlight for native grasses and wildflowers. By cutting out the big stuff, we stop the honeysuckle from reestablishing itself, as the park will use controlled burns to keep young invasives from filling in again.

Illinois, the Prairie State, was about 60% prairie at one time. Now very little of that native prairie exists. This park is the first of its kind at the federal level and the largest preserved prairie east of the Mississippi. Much of the land was farm and then, in the 1940's was turned to munitions manufacturing for the war effort. The area eventually became part of the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. Portions of the park are still being cleaned by the military before they can be restored.

The effort to restore this land to its original condition is expensive and time-consuming. Besides clean-up from the pollution of decades of munitions manufacturing, there is also the needed break-up of water tiles laid by the military and farmers to create usable land out of wetlands. They also need to clear out overgrown and invasive brush and trees and then control these with burns. The site also contains over 300 bunkers built into the ground to store TNT and rail lines used to transport said munitions. The restored wetlands and prairie do and will provide homes for native (and often endangered) wildflowers, birds, and frogs, as well as deer, coyotes, fox, and who knows what else.

There is also a historic and recreation aspect to the park. Hiking and biking trails exist and will be redesigned as the site is restored. Besides the aforementioned bunkers, a number of historic cemeteries exist in the park, as do some Native American sites.

I look forward to visiting and volunteering here in the future, as it is a beautiful and relatively unknown location.

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