I am privileged to be able to work at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. The scale and challenges that make up the restoration of the site are indeed unique.
When you learn about creating a prairie it sounds so simple. Plant a mix of seed over bare ground and watch it grow like magic. What they don’t prepare you for is how you get to the bare ground starting point.
At Midewin, there are World War II-era concrete bunkers nestled in the restoration sites.
These concrete fortresses have been in place for decades and present huge overhead costs for removal.
In front of each bunker also lies an old rail line that sometimes is scattered with old ties but most often with thick compacted rock layers.
Adjacent to the rail lines are worn out asphalt or gravel roads and parking pads from back when thousands of people once called this site their day job.
These conditions are ripe for historical narratives but hostile to prairie plantings and a long way from the ideal bare soil conditions you might envision.
In an ironic twist, the soil used to camouflage the top of the bunkers from enemy spy planes is now used to fill in their holes. Where the bunkers once housed dynamite, now, hopefully, there is dirt exploding with biodiversity.
Bunkers are not the only building footprints we work in.
My first few years at the site were spent restoring wetlands where an U.S. Army sanitation plant once stood. We planted sedges, cardinal flower and bulrushes where retention ponds once stood. These new restored wetland communities carry on the tradition of purifying the water at the site.
Agriculture has one of the longest legacies at the Midewin restoration sites.
Before the U.S. Army ever set foot in Will County, small homesteads dotted the site with clusters of apple trees still showing us where generations of families were raised.
Archeology in these sites has been an important focus of Midewin ever since I have been there.
The hedge rows of those old farm fields are now begin cleared from the landscape to make room for more uninterrupted prairie.
However, the loggerhead shrike, one of Midewin’s rarest nesting bird species, carries on the farm family’s legacy, as it uses osage orange trees almost exclusively to nest in.
We work to keep a number of those trees from the hedge rows to enhance the habitat.
Farming also is a modern practice at Midewin. The best prep for getting a prairie started is transitioning from a corn or soybean field and planting our seeds right over the harvested stubble in the fall. Leasing out restoration land helps to pay for the future seeds and sets the table for their success.
The scale and history of Midewin make it unique to many. The navigation of the not-so-textbook restoration process is what makes if fun. There still is a lot more ground to prep and future seeds to sow.