Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
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  • 25 A Sandpiper Beginning

    Upland Sandpiper credit US Fish & Wildlife

    In 1982, a man named Carl heard the call of the upland sandpiper. The common call is a series of pipping notes of the same pitch given while in flight. There is a distinctive song of males displaying for females on spring nights. It begins with an ascending trill, ending in a pure tone of a “wolf whistle”. And it sounds like this... Carl was at the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. This might not seem important in the whole scheme of things. Except, this bird was on the endangered species list.


    Carl N. Becker was uniquely qualified to identify the upland sandpiper. He was Illinois’ first Endangered Species Coordinator. He knew that these birds required large pasture sizes and short grass height provided by grazing cattle. The Joliet Arsenal had this. It provided a perfect breeding habitat for the upland sandpiper. These factors may have drawn Carl to investigate the Arsenal in hopes of finding such a species.

    In 1983, the discovery of the upland sandpiper encouraged the IDNR, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, to seek Army permission to conduct upland sandpiper surveys on 6,000 acres of Arsenal pastureland. These tracts of grassland habitat grazed by cattle were the largest still existing in Illinois. The survey confirmed Carl’s suspicion. The Arsenal grasslands contained the largest population of endangered upland sandpiper in Illinois. 

    The survey also uncovered the largest population of endangered loggerhead shrike in Illinois. Additionally, other birds in decline were found on the Arsenal pastures. The species included the Henslow sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, meadow lark, bobolink, and dickcissel. These birds are considered “area sensitive” and require large acres of grassland to breed successfully.

    1991 saw the future of the Joliet Arsenal in question . It was listed as a Superfund Site. These sites are polluted locations in the United States requiring a long-term response to clean up hazardous material contaminations. This was due to the use of the Arsenal land to produce munitions and TNT since 1940. The Department of Defense decided, in 1992, to surplus the Arsenal. This meant the disposal of 23,500 acres of Arsenal land but this was NOT a considered a base closure. This gave the state of Illinois the right to purchase the property. That is if other federal agencies declined accepting the property for other federal purposes. At the time, the value of the 23,500 acres was estimated at $23.6 billion.

    By 1993, the IDNR had 11 years of grassland bird data from the annual surveys. This data was critical in persuading then Governor Jim Edgar to save the Arsenal lands for wildlife habitat and open space in Illinois. The importance of this project to Illinois was seen as Governor Edgar assigned Al GrosbolI, from his staff, to act as policy lead. Fran Harty, with 12 years’ experience as a IDNR Natural Heritage Biologist on the Arsenal project, volunteered to work as the IDNR’s point person. He later became senior director of special projects for The Nature Conservancy and stayed involved with Midewin through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy.

    In that same year, U.S. Army Colonel Alan Kruse convened the re-use plan for the Arsenal. He wanted to know the location of endangered species on Arsenal land. The Army provided $35,000 for a survey of the 23,500 acres of Arsenal land and the adjacent 4,000 acres of the Joliet Army Training Area. They goal was to determine the exact location of threatened and endangered species. The Nature Conservancy & the IDNR managed the funds and hired contractors to survey avian, botanical, reptile & amphibian, and insect species. Survey results showed 16 threatened and endangered species that called this land home on an annual basis for breeding, wintering, and foraging. Eleven of the species were birds.

    In 1994, the IDNR National Heritage Biologist, Bill Glass wrote a report of the survey. The report included maps showing the habitats and boundaries of each species. These maps later served as the basis for the division of the 23,500 acres of Arsenal land. It was divided into 19,500 acres for Midewin, 50 acres for a county landfill, 3.000 acres for two industrial parks, and 950 acres for the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. Bill Glass later became the first ecologist for Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

    The goal was still for the state of Illinois to eventually purchase the land. A strong local and state partnership was formed by pulling together key Illinois and a few national conservation organizations. This resulted in full bipartisan support from Illinois congressional delegates. A federal partner was still needed to receive the Arsenal property in the chain of disposal before it could be purchased at the state level. It was thought that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service would be the federal partner but due to fiscal restraints they pulled out. The U.S. Forest Service became interested due to efforts of Dr. Larry Stritch, botanist of the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois and later Forest Service National Botanist.

    Between 1994 and 1996 several things occurred. U.S. Illinois Congressman, George Sangmeister, formed a 24-member Joliet Arsenal Citizen Planning Commission. Illinois Governor Edgar created the 19-member Joliet Arsenal Governor’s Coordinating Council. The Chicago Tribune newspaper wrote 14 editorials in support of saving the Joliet Arsenal for open space, wildlife habitat, and the creation of America’s first National Tallgrass Prairie. There was a patchwork of people, conservation organizations, and politicians that wanted the Arsenal lands to remain open for habitat of these unique animal and plant species. On April 8, 1994, the 24-member Joliet Arsenal Citizen Planning Commission voted unanimously to adopt a land use concept plan for the Arsenal. The land use plan was the same map from the Endangered Species Report prepared by Bill Glass.

    In 1994, Congressman Sangmeister, a democrat, introduced a bill to congress to adopt the re-use plan and transfer the Arsenal from Army to the U.S. Forest Service. This bill did not get called to vote and Sangmeister retired. In 1995, Congressman Jerry Weller, a republican, won Sangmeister’s seat and took up the effort to pass the bill. On the Senate side, Illinois Senator Paul Simon inserted this bill, the “Illinois Land Conservation Act of 1995” into the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1996. The bill passed Congress on January 3, 1996. On February 1, 1996, the law was signed into effect transforming the Joliet Arsenal into Midewin, America’s first National Tallgrass Prairie.

    It is amazing to think that 19,500 acres will one day be a mosaic of tallgrass prairie and grassland pastures that once covered Illinois. Many people and groups have been involved and continue to partner and provide funding to make this goal reachable. It will take decades to see the seeds of this project reach fruition. Every piece of unwanted Arsenal infrastructure taken out, invasive species controlled, native seeds germinating in bison tracks, and grassland birds nesting by the thousands in grassland pastures grazed by bison and cattle all bring us closer. Nearer to the dream so many folks have seen and worked to create since Midewin was signed into existence in 1996. The dream of once again seeing a landscape covered with tallgrass prairie and grassland birds.

    All this happened because a man knew the call of the upland sandpiper and did something about it.

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