Every once in a while, common sense prevails. The good guys win. Yesterday, a federal judge drove a big, fat stake through the heart of the proposed Illiana Expressway.
This decision will save a lot of farms in Will County. It will save Illinois taxpayers a billion dollars. And it will save a lot of birds from disappearing from the earth.
Birds are a big reason that Midewin was established as the nation’s first National Tallgrass Prairie. Grassland birds in particular. As a class, they are the most imperiled birds on the planet due to destruction of habitat. In Illinois, less than one-tenth of one percent of natural land remains. Some grassland birds managed to adapt to most of Illinois being converted to farm fields. However, since 1950 Illinois alone has lost 3.6 million acres of prime farmland to development. The American Farmland Trust revealed that two acres of farmland are being lost to development every minute, with Illinois being among the land loss leaders.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, then, to figure out that less habitat means fewer birds. Let’s take a common grassland bird – the eastern meadowlark. The poster bird for Midewin. National Audubon reveals that over the last 40 years populations of this sweet-voiced bird have plummeted 72% – from 24 million to 7 million.
At 19,000 acres, Midewin goes a long way toward providing exactly the kind of refuge needed to help reverse this trend; to provide meadowlarks and other grassland denizens the large, open spaces they need to rest, feed and raise their families.
As a volunteer steward at Midewin, it’s my job to count grassland bird species during the breeding season every spring.This data is critical to help guide the restoration efforts underway by the US Forest Service and its nonprofit restoration partners, including the National Forest Foundation, The Wetlands Initiative and Openlands.
Most every Saturday or Sunday from early May through late June, I’m awake before the alarm and out the door by 6 a.m. I arrive at Midewin (after stopping for coffee) around 7. I monitor a part of Midewin known as Tract 104. To most, it probably looks like any old pasture, which is pretty much what it is until such time as the US Forest Service can restore it to tallgrass prairie.
But to me it is an Eden. The cool season grasses provide sufficient habitat to make this patch an oasis for grassland birds. Close your eyes and imagine bobolinks chattering on the wing like over-caffeinated R2D2s.
The melodious whistles of eastern meadowlarks before they burst out of the short grasses, their white tail feathers flashing in the early morning light like the after burners of a jet plane. The faint hiccup of Henslow’s sparrows, most often heard rather than seen. The insect-like buzz of a grasshopper sparrows. The namesake call of dickcissels, dressed up like Mini Me versions of meadowlarks.
The toy bubble machine cries of rare upland sandpipers. And, of course, the ratchety alarums of red-winged blackbird as they flash their epaulets of crimson in aggressively patroling their breeding territories.
Yesterday’s ruling doesn’t definitively kill the Illiana. The likes of the Environmental Law and Policy Center and others are working hard to drive the final nails in the coffin. But a year ago, politics and the specter of jobs (for a few) and big profits (for some) conspired to make the Illiana seem like a done deal. Business as usual. No matter the cost, financially, socially, ecologically. Today, at long last, as long envisioned by poets and conservationists, alike, we are poised to choose a different path:
“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost‘s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”(Rachel Carson, Silent Spring)