An Expressway Dies, a New Path Emerges

No Illiana!

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.

midewin logo

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)

 

Midewin-Dunes Connection

"The woods are lovely dark and deep/But I have promises to keep..." The Miller Beach Trail at Indiana Dunes National Park
“The woods are lovely dark and deep/But I have promises to keep…” The Miller Beach Trail at Indiana Dunes National Park

Last week, the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission voted in support of the Illiana Tollroad. To assuage my frustration and grief, I head to Midewin, which lies in the path of the proposed tollroad. But part way there, I turn the car around and make my way to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Why? In many ways, the Dunes are to Northwestern Indiana what Midewin is to Northeastern Illinois. Both are large, landscape-scale conservation areas. The Dunes National Lakeshore – along with its sister site, the Indiana Dunes State Park – measures nearly 18,000 acres. Midewin is a bit bigger at 19,000. (A lot bigger at 40,000 acres if you factor in its sister sites – the DesPlaines Conservation Area and Goose Lake Prairie.)

Over the (Grand Cal) River and through the (Miller Beach) Woods...
Over the (Grand Cal) River and through the (Miller Beach) Woods…

Both are ecological gems. The Dunes boasts over 1,100 flowering plants and ferns, making it one of the most biologically diverse of all our national parks. Even as Midewin is being fully restored to its original prairie state, it is a major refuge for all species of grassland birds.

In addition to being havens for native plants and animals, the Dunes and Midewin provide people something they can’t get anywhere else in our highly urbanized area: a chance to get away from it all for a little peace, quiet and introspection. In fact, the home page for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is titled “Sand and Solitude.” And the very word Midewin is a Potawatomi word for “healing.”

Sand and Solitude (and clouds and lake) at the Dunes
Sand and Solitude (and clouds and lake) at the Dunes

Living nearly equidistant between the Dunes and Midewin, it’s frequently a toss-up which one to visit for hiking and birding. Loving them equally, I go to both. A lot. The last thing in the world I would want to happen is for anyone even to suggest running a major tollroad alongside the Dunes. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that doing so would be devastating. For plants and animals. For the people who visit. All the noise, congestion, pollution. Blech.

Along the Indiana stretch of the Illiana Tollroad – which NIRPC just voted to approve – it would run far to the south of the Dunes, mostly through farmland. But on the Illinois side of the state line, the Illiana would run along the entire southern border of Midewin. Again, it doesn’t take a genius to understand what a terrible effect that would have on any natural area.

In approving the Illiana, it’s obvious that NIRPC doesn’t much care what happens on the Illinois side. Unfortunately, neither does the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council’s MPO Committee, in its approval of the Illiana.

But others care. Deeply. This tollroad ain’t built yet.

Illiana is (not) for the Birds

As if we needed another reason to oppose the Illiana tollroad, here’s one more – it would be disastrous for birds.

Roads are bad for all wildlife for the the reasons you’d expect: habitat fragmentation, pollution and collisions. Just this week, a second rare and radio-collared ocelet was killed by a motorist along a state highway in Texas. And today’s NY Times pins the population collapse of monarch butterflies on the loss of native habitat.

But it turns out that roads are “overwhelmingly negative” for birds for these usual reasons plus the simple fact that they are noisy. In a recent, first-of-its-kind study reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, researchers set up speakers in a remote, roadless stretch of Idaho wilderness during fall bird migration season. Every four days, they played traffic noise, followed by four days of no traffic noise. Not surprisingly, there was a 25 percent decrease in the number of bird species along the “phantom road” while the traffic noise was playing, with some species avoiding the area almost completely.

South Patrol Road Prairie
South Patrol Road Prairie

As proposed, the Illiana tollroad would run immediately adjacent to the Midewin complex along its entire southern border – a distance of about seven miles. Midewin already is bordered on the west by I-55 and bisected by Route 53, both of which boast heavy truck traffic. In my experience – as a volunteer bird monitor and one who spends quite a bit of time birdwatching out at Midewin – birds are scarce near these noise corridors. Adding Illiana into the mix would further shrink Midewin’s footprint as a refuge for some of the most imperiled birds on the earth.

And the extra noise, pollution and congestion would, well, simply suck for the human element at Midewin, as well. Part of the joy of Midewin is the fact that it is one of the very few places in the entire state where you can experience something akin to the wide open prairie landscape of pre-settlement times. Most prairie remnants are virtual postage stamps, some measuring less than an acre in size.

    Upland sandpiper
Upland sandpiper

At 19,000 acres, Midewin affords the peace and solitude that were as much hallmarks of primeval prairies as was their fabled abundance of wildflowers, grasses and birds. The Illiana would permanently shatter that experience for everyone. Gone or greatly diminished would be the joys of listening to the subtle buzz of grasshopper sparrows, the sotto voce hiccup of Henslow’s sparrows or the burbling cries of state-endangered upland sandpipers.

American Woodcock

There is nothing quite like standing in the midst of South Patrol Road Prairie at dusk,the early spring air thin and crisp, basking in the twittering mating calls of  woodcocks. Or shushing through this same prairie in mid-winter, sowing native wetland seeds, while the carillon from the adjacent Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery pierces the thin winter air to tickle your ear with its melancholy peal.

The route of the Illiana would run right alongside South Patrol Road Prairie, rendering these and inummerable other experiences as rare as the state-endangered loggerhead shrike. Or northern harrier. Or any number of threatened and endangered bird species who are just barely hanging onto existence because of places like Midewin.

Northern Harrier hunting in South Patrol Road Prairie

 

 

An open letter to Governor Quinn following the MPO Policy Committee’s vote regarding the Illiana Expressway

Dear Governor Quinn,

Less than one-tenth of one percent of quality natural land remains anywhere in Illinois. That’s roughly the equivalent of a small bedside nightstand in a 2,500 square foot home; provided you chop that nightstand into a thousand pieces and scatter them throughout theplace.

Less than one-tenth of one percent. Chopped up into a thousand pieces.

One of the biggest and best remaining pieces is Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and its sister sites – Goose Lake Prairie and DesPlaines Conservation Area.

Yesterday’s vote by the MPO Policy Committee paves the way for the Illiana Expressway to be built right through the middle of this last best stand of nature in all of Northern Illinois.

IDOT engineers assure us that there will be no adverse effects on the natural areas through which the Illiana will course 43,000 vehicles per day. Pardon me, but I’m going trust the ecologists, botanists and avian experts who are not on the state payroll.

midewin logo

Experts tell me – supported by data that I help collect as a volunteer bird monitor at Midewin – that Midewin is a critical refuge for grassland birds. Over the past few decades, suburban sprawl has gobbled up farmland and grasslands at an explosive rate. As a result, “grassland birds have experienced steeper, more consistent, and more widespread population declines than any other avian guild in North America.” Populations of the eastern meadowlark, for instance, whose image is emblazoned on Midewin’s logo, has declined by 72 percent. To put it another way, there are 17 million fewer meadowlarks today than there were in 1970.

17 million.

Building the Illiana will drive a stake through the heart of Midewin. It will gobble up thousands of acres of farmland. Tens of thousands. For once the road is built, unchecked suburban sprawl will follow as it has throughout our history; the very thing that the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and its Go To 2040 Plan was hoping to avoid in favor of smart, strategic, sustainable development for the entire region – not just the politically advantageous county of Will.

If the Illiana is built – and I have no doubt that in the end the state, not the much heralded private partners, will undertake the lion’s share of financial risk in building it – Midewin will remain. But it will be decidedly less. It will be green, but comparatively devoid of the bird song that should fill it. This, too, will be your legacy. A perpetual Silent Spring save for the constant roar of cars and commerce. And so it seems fitting that I leave you with a quote from Rachel Carson:

“Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”