Wolf Road Prairie

Illinois Nature Preserve #15, baby. Well on my way toward the goal of 50 for the year.

At this time of year, a tallgrass prairie may appear a little less than inviting. I imagine that most folks speeding along Wolf Road in suburban Westchester perceive nothing but what appears to be a big patch of weeds waiting to be turned into a housing development, a business park, a commercial strip mall.

Perhaps some might notice the handsome, historic farm house at the north end of the site. For those curious enough to stop to check it out, what they’ll discover that is that the farmhouse is considered to be the oldest remaining structure in Westchester. Moved to its current location in 1980, it was built in the 1850s, when the Prairie State was being transformed to the Corn and Soy Bean State.

Beyond the house, visitors will discover that what looks like dead weeds in early April will soon burst forth into a lush tapestry of tallgrass prairie, with over 360 plant species. At 80 acres, it is one of the largest unplowed prairie remnants remaining in the entire Chicago region, and the best quality black soil prairie east of the Mississippi River.

Oh, and they’ll discover one other thing, too: thanks to George Fell it will never be developed for anything other than what it is by virtue of most of it being dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

Admittedly a little drab in advance of the official start of spring, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve nonetheless affords wonders for those who know were and when to look.

Through the husks of last year’s towering flower stalks, one will notice a burned area — evidence of the recent controlled use of fire, emulating one of the prime natural forces that historically helped keep the prairie environment free of trees and shrubs, and which today keeps it free of invasive plants both native and non-native.

In the midst of the burned area is a small seasonal wetland — a magnet for the red-winged blackbirds, blue-winged teals and great blue herons that we saw today. The wetland is an attractive nesting site for Canada geese, as well. Already, this expectant mother is perched upon her nest as regally as any queen.

But why Susan and I have come to this place, this day, at this time, is to see the skydances of American woodcocks. Save the Prairie Society hosts woodcock viewing events two weekends each year. It’s a friendly affair, with folks arriving around 7 p.m. They gather on the porch of the farmhouse, munching on homemade treats and sipping hot cider to take the edge off the early evening chill.

Those who have seen woodcocks before help the first-timers know what to look for. Someone takes out their cell phone and calls up a youtube video of a peenting woodcock to help attune new ears what to listen for, before the birds — the males, that is, the females, like us, are there to watch — launch themselves skyward with a fluty, flittering sound. Up and up they go, until, having impressed prospective mates, they tumble back to earth with a softer, plaintive tune.

At 7:25, the official time of sunset this day, all chatter stops. Eyes and ears are fixed on the surrounding area. At 7:40, we hear the first peent. And then another. And another. There are clearly several male woodcocks warming up.

A few minutes later, someone hears the fluty-flitter. All eyes search the darkening sky. No one sees a thing.

Another fluty-flitter. Someone points. There! Sure enough, there it is, indeed. A small, dark dot, rising higher, higher, higher, until out of sight.

More fluty-flitters. But they’re hard to see due to the fading light. Our leader saw four. I saw three. Everyone saw at least one.

Perhaps for many, perhaps for most, hanging out on a chill evening for the chance to listen for faint bird calls over the roar of traffic, to spy a tiny dot in the gloaming might not be at the top of their list of things to do. But for the dozen of us gathered, we are in seventh heaven. For a few moments, we are witnesses to an ancient rite. Eons in its evolution to ensure the perpetuation of a species. Strange and wonderful in the joy it affords those of us who take the time to notice.

And because of a guy named George Fell who fought to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves system, the skydances of woodcocks may continue at Wolf Road Prairie for eons to come. And we may enjoy the many species that rely upon Wolf Road Prairie — and the 400 other dedicated Nature Preserves scattered throughout the state — for generations to come.

You Make a Life by What You Give

The title comes from Winston Churchill: “You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” On Saturday night, scores of volunteers were honored by what they so richly give to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

I’ve been volunteering at Midewin since it was established as the nation’s first national tallgrass prairie in 1996. That’s me, below on the right, at one of the first volunteer workdays, alongside Jerry Heinrich.  Over the years, I’ve cut invasive brush, pulled garlic mustard, harvested native seed, cleaned it, planted it in native seed beds and hand-sowed it in several prairie and wetland restoration areas. Of late, mostly what I do is monitor grassland birds.

But all of this pales in comparison to what Jerry Heinrich has done. Along with this wife, Connie, he practically lives at Midewin. And for Midewin. Even before Midewin was established, he served on the 24-member Joliet Arsenal Citizens Planning Commission, which led to Midewin’s establishment in 1996. Thereafter he was among the founders of the Midewin Tallgrass Prairie Alliance, a “friends” group in support of Midewin, and for many years has served as its president. He leads tours, he cooks hotdogs, he fixes equipment, runs plant sales, and is an avid lookout for new invasive species. In short, he does whatever is needed and he is–quite simply–one of the most eloquent and personable ambassadors for Midewin. For all that he does, Jerry was one of only seven people nationwide this year to receive the US Forest Service Volunteers & Service Restoration Award.

Other volunteers received handsome ceramic plaques in recognition of their efforts. A couple of volunteers were recognized for their dedication over many years–Don Grisham put in 2,350 hours since 2001, and Len LeClaire (below, on the left) 2,080 hours since 2007. Bob Green clocked 242 hours since February of this year.

All in all, over the course of 2016, volunteers gave more than 13,600 hours of their time. At the low, low volunteer valuation rate of $23.56 an hour (according to the Independent Sector), that adds up to more than $320,000 of donated time. Or, to put it another way, 13,600 hours is the equivalent of an additional 8 full-time staff working to restore Midewin–for free!

The evening’s MC, Volunteer Coordinator Allison Cisneros, pointed out how challenging the volunteer work can be–cutting buckthorn in freezing temperatures or enduring ticks, chiggers, heat and humidity on an August work day in the field.

But she also pointed out what makes volunteering fun–learning new skills, meeting new friends, and making a difference. Among the 42 different kinds of volunteer opportunities available at Midewin, the evening program featured presentations on two of them: 1) a new ranger program, in which volunteers greet a hugely growing number of visitors who come to see Midewin’s new bison herd, and 2) an archaeological dig on a site dating back 10,000 years.

Of course, the success of Midewin also relies on exceptional professional staff. In this, Midewin is equally fortunate to have so many dedicated individuals. But Saturday night was all about the volunteers and celebrating another successful year of so many people giving so generously of their time and talents to take care of our public lands.

I’m grateful to be counted among them. I’m grateful for all that Midewin gives back to me.

 

Cowbird Conundrum

I recently posted this photo to Facebook – a yellow warbler feeding a cowbird baby. A good friend replied, “I disdain the parasitic cowbirds.”

I so get that. Cowbirds make me crazy, too.

For those who don’t know, cowbirds are “brood  parasites.” Or deadbeat parents. That is they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds – about 220 different species – then leave the raising of their young to others.

Some bird species recognize cowbirds eggs and push them out of the nest, or puncture their shells with their beaks. But most species are unable to recognize cow bird eggs. Or, there is new evidence that suggests that some species recognize the foreign eggs but accept them in order to avoid having their nests being destroyed by cowbird parents as a form of punishment for not raising cowbird young.

In any event, cowbirds eggs hatch faster. The foster parents, for whatever reason, feed whichever gaping beak is in their nest. As the bigger cowbirds gain strength, they frequently push the other eggs out of the nest or smother their nest mates in the bottom of the nest.

To watch a tiny yellow warbler, which weighs about a third of an ounce, feed a young cowbird is to watch an over-worked parent fill the gaping maw of real-life Baby Huey that will grow to five times its size.

How did cowbirds evolve this way? Blame it on the buffalo. Cowbirds are native to North America, and co-evolved with the massive bison herds of yesteryear. Cowbirds would follow the herds and feast on the bugs stirred up by the grazing bison. But because bison are nomadic, when they moved on, the cowbirds were forced to move with them. Which meant that someone else would have to watch over their young. And so some clever bird figured to lay its eggs in the nest of some other mother bird.

Once the great nomadic bison herds were eliminated, cowbirds kept to their bad parenting ways, and pose a significant threat to song bird and grassland bird populations, which are facing numerous other threats to their long-term survival.

That’s another reason why Midewin is so important. One of the most effective ways of controlling cowbird parasitism is to restore large landscapes, which minimizes what is known as “edge habitat.” Cowbirds prefer forest edges, which provides them ready access to the nests of many grassland bird species. But restoring Midewin’s 19,000 acres to native tallgrass prairie, eliminating the old hedgerows and volunteer stands of weed trees, will greatly reduce the ability of cowbirds to prey on the nests of unsuspecting birds.

Is this catbird gathering food for its own young, or unwittingly for a cowbird?

Especially with the recent reintroduction of bison to Midewin, there are certain to remain some native cowbirds as part of the prairie ecosystem. But Midewin is big enough – sometimes size really does matter – to provide balance among all of the many different kinds of birds, mammals and plants of the native tallgrass prairie.

Bison Bird?

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks of Romeo. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I can’t attest to how a cattle egret might smell, but no matter which of several common names you call Bubulcus ibis, it is one sweet bird.

Its common name in North America is cattle egret. This picture I took at Midewin today provides pretty good evidence why. They feast on insects stirred up by grazing animals, frequently perching on their backs as they await a meal.

This is probably a trick – or adaptation – they learned in Africa, where the species originated. There, cattle egrets are known as elephant birds, or rhinoceros egrets or hippopotamus egrets. Their arabic name, Abu Querdan, means father of ticks, a name given in the misbelief that this species pick ticks off the backs of its grazing herbivores.

In Europe, cattle egrets are known as buff-backed herons for the patches of buff color on their backsides (not to mention their bellies and their head crests.) This – in addition to their smaller size – is one of the easiest ways of distinguishing them from great egrets, also present at Midewin.

Great egrets are larger than cattle egrets, and lack their buffy markings.

Cattle egrets are not all that common at Midewin. According to ebird, the first one was sighted there in 1996. I first glimpsed one in 2011, and then not again until today.

There are quite a few cattle at Midewin. At least for now. Cattle are a kind of stop gap measure until Midewin can be fully restored. Rather than let the former ag and arsenal lands go fallow, grazed pasturelands actually provide pretty good grassland bird habitat – a major management objective at Midewin. Additionally, pasture leases provide additional income that gets channeled back into restoration.

Dickcissels are among the grassland bird species that benefit from grazed pasturelands.

One day, once all the land is restored and the cattle leases expired, will Midewin’s cattle egrets adapt to become bison birds? As a species, cattle egrets did not co-evolve with American bison. Native to Africa, cattle egrets managed to find their way to South America in 1877, and then worked their way northward to the United States by 1941 – long after the storied bison herds of the 1800s had been eliminated.

A quick Google search already reveals that cattle egrets are adopting to bison just fine elsewhere. After all, how hard can it be to ride a bison once you’ve mastered elephants, rhinos, hippos, and bare-backed moo-cows?

Spring is Deceptive

At first glance, a prairie doesn’t look like much in early spring. Some might even go so far as to say it’s nothing so much as a bunch of dead weeds.

But look closely, take a long, leisurely walk through Midewin, and you’ll see the joint is really hopping, buzzing, chirping and bellowing with life.

At 19,000 acres, Midewin is big and diverse enough to harbor an exceptional diversity of birds. Over the past several years, I’ve seen 125 different species at Midewin. Today, as resident and migrant species return, I’ve seen 46 species, including brown thrashers. Typically, they are solitary and secretive. A fleeting glimpse is mostly what you can expect before they disappear into a thicket. Except in early spring, when they perch in yet-leafless trees to sing their melodious mating calls, while keeping a wary eye on the world.

Black-capped chickadees hang around Midewin all winter long, but it’s in spring that these tiny bundles of energy – weighing about a third of an ounce – really get busy, harvesting every nook and cranny for seeds, insects and spiders, while filling the air with insect buzzes, major fourth call notes and their namesake “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.”

Particularly thrilling is spotting a loggerhead shrike. Midewin is home to a handful of breeding pairs of this state endangered and proposed for listing as federally threatened species. In addition to their rarity, they are notable for caching prey – insects, rodents, even other small birds – on thorns, of which there are plenty at Midewin with all of the osage orange trees remaining from its pioneer past.

On one of the warmest days thus far this spring, the warm-blooded creatures of Midewin – me included – are not the only ones enjoying the welcome sunshine. To survive the winter, garter snakes go into hibernation (technically brumation, in that being cold-blooded – technically, ectotherms – they remain alert but sluggish, the cold slowing their metabolism to nearly zero, which means they can go long periods without eating but not starve.) When the temperatures warm, up goes their metabolism and they must reemerge to feed. On the other hand, who doesn’t love basking in the sun after a long winter?

So, too with green frogs and painted turtles.

High summer is when the prairie is ablaze with more than 200 species of grasses and flowers. But in early spring, Midewin’s Prairie Creek Woods harbors a host of woodland ephemerals, such as this swamp buttercup, in turn hosting one of many different kinds of native bees.

As with every season, there is always a little sadness. This fledgling painted turtle apparently tried to leave its nest and make its way to a wet area, but ran out of energy on the gravel path.

But this death also provides an opportunity to take the kind of closer peek at the beautiful underbelly of a painted turtle, something you almost never get to see by observing critters in the wild.

Something else you seldom see are duck nests. Unlike mallard drakes (males) that boast metallic-emerald green heads, the hens (females) are dull, streaky brown, the better to blend in with their ground nesting environs. Clambering atop one of Midewin’s old arsenal bunkers for a panoramic view of the landscape, I inadvertently flushed a hen from her nest, which was nestled against the bunker’s exhaust vent.

At the other end of the animal spectrum, Midewin has officially welcomed its first baby bison. I don’t have pictures yet, but stayed tuned. Better yet, head out to Midewin yourself. A big, beautiful prairie and all the life it harbors awaits you.

Prairie Orrery

Arthur Melville Pearson w/ moon

Ever gaze skyward and wonder how the solar system works? Of course you could go to the Adler Planetarium to ponder North America’s largest collection of astrobales, armillary spheres and other devices built throughout the centuries to help explain how the stars and planets wheel about the heavens.

Or you could head out to Midewin to gaze up at prairie dock – a living orrery of the prairie.

An orrery is a mechanical model of our solar system. It demonstrates how the planets move about the sun. The oldest known such model is of Greek origin and dates from about 150 B.C.E. The first “modern” orrery was built in 1704 in England and presented to Charles Boyle, Fourth Earl of Orrery, hence the name.

Prairie dock, on the other hand, is the largest member of the tallgrass prairie family Silphium. At its base are rough, elephant ear-like leaves from which rise a bare, slender stalk up to 10 feet in height. Atop the stalk are several branches, each terminating in a green bud the size of a melon ball.

Once the first bud bursts forth in a dazzling yellow flower, it takes little imagination to see it as the sun and the remaining buds as planets. Certainly this botanical orrery lacks the clockwork precision of its mechanical counterparts. But stare up at it long enough and you can’t help but see our entire solar system in a single Silphium terebinthinaceum.

Stare a little longer and you can’t help but notice that there are countless prairie docks and related family members of Silphium in bloom. Just as there are countless solar systems and galaxies beyond our own. The infinite wonder of our universe reflected in the recovering prairie lands of Midewin.

All this would be more than a little mind blowing were it not for the humble bumble bee. Collecting nectar and pollen from the prairie dock blossom in front of you, he brings you back to earth. To the here and now.

Another magic moment at Midewin.

Through the Lookingglass

Midewin is a window into our prairie past. But look closely and you’ll see it is also a lookingglass through which we may step back in time – millions of years ago – when much of North American was emerging from a shallow inland sea.

As a habitat, prairie is the new kid on the block. Following the retreat of the last glaciers, prairie emerged in North America about 8,000 years ago and continued to evolve until we plowed it all up. Beginning in the early 1800s, it took little more than a century for us to destroy 99.9 percent of the prairie in Illinois.

Since the establishment of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in 1996, the US Forest Service and its nonprofit partners and volunteers have recovered nearly 5,000 acres of native prairie habitat. That’s about twice as much as exists in all of the other prairie remnant sites combined throughout the entire state.These big open spaces at Midewin provide critical habitat for imperiled grasslands birds, such as this young dickcissel still getting the hang of how best to perch on the jungle gym stems of rattlesnake master.

There are now nearly 350 plant species flourishing at Midewin, including common milkweed, a critical food source for increasingly uncommon monarch butterflies.

Beyond the birds and butterflies, there is a family of bugs (with apologies to entomologists, but the alliteration was too tempting) that likewise call Midewin home and speak to its more ancient habitat roots.

For much of its history, Illinois – in fact most of North America – lay under a warm, shallow ocean. About 325 million years ago, the waters began to recede, leaving in their wake a delta swamp. According to the Illinois State Geological Survey, the great delta forests of the time were patrolled by “dragonflies as big as hawks.”

Dragonflies were among the first winged creatures to evolve over 300 million years ago – before birds. Today, there are about 3,000 species of dragonflies. I’m not sure how many inhabit Midewin, but there are quite few. Including this newly emergent female ruby meadowhawk (notice the forewing not yet fully expanded and hardened.)

ruby meadowhawk on horsetail
ruby meadowhawk on horsetail

 

Note, too, that the meadowhawk is perched atop a spore-bearing cone of common horsetail, itself among the oldest surviving plant families. By the time horsetails appeared – about 150 million years ago – so, too had dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, weathering and erosion are the likely culprits as to why there are no dinosaur fossils yet discovered in Illinois. However, evidence of the ancient coal forests of 325 million years ago remains underground in nearby Coal City, named for the coal that formed as a result of trees and other plants being buried in mud and compacted over time.

Evidence of the ancient shallow seas likewise remains underground within the very footprint of Midewin – in the form of dolomite that was formed of billions upon trillions of seashells. In some areas, this dolomite remains very near to the surface, which underpins a distinct and very rare type of prairie.

Above ground at Midewin, evidence of its ancient past lives on in wetland stands of horsetail and the many different kinds of dragonflies that hunt their prey (and sometimes mate) on the wing, just as they did millions and millions of years ago.

Male twelve-spotted skimmer
Male eastern amber wing
Lancet clubtail
Female common pondhawk

Spring is Sprung

It seemed like forever since I’d been out to Midewin. How thrilling it was to be back among so many good friends, themselves absent (or slumbering or merely unseen) for so long.

May apples, wake robin and toothwort
May apples, wake robin and toothwort

Where to begin? Let’s start with spring ephemerals since, as their name implies, they are with us but a very short time. Each spring, I make a beeline to Prairie Creek Woods, a remnant oak woodland alongside its namesake creek. The more restoration, the more woodland wildflowers. Spring beauties, smooth yellow violets, common phlox, wake robin and May apples to name a few.

bluebells
bluebells

But there is a secret place in the woods, beside the creek, to which I return like a faithful lover. Waiting for me there is a cloistered stand of bluebells. Just for me. And every year, I return their love by searching among the blossoms for sprigs of garlic mustard and yank them out, to ensure the bluebells do not become overrun  with this highly invasive weed; to ensure that bluebells return healthy each and every spring.

Rattlesnake master emergent in South Patrol Road Prairie
Rattlesnake master emergent in South Patrol Road Prairie

To ensure that the recovering prairie returns each and every spring, the US Forest Service’s Hot Shot Team conducts controlled burns. This year was a record setter for the number of acres cleared by fire, returning vital nutrients to the soil. Man, I do loves me some reemergent prairie vegetation following a burn. Nothing makes me so happy as to spy intensely spring green shoots rising up out of the rich, blackened soils.

Everything is protected at Midewin, including the archaeological elements
Everything is protected at Midewin, including the archaeological elements

The cleansing nature of fire reveals, too, some hidden secrets. Cleared of vegetation, the foundations of old farm buildings, shards of pottery and glass, homestead walls comprised of glacial erratics cleared from the surrounding fields, are stark reminders of Midewin’s agricultural past, when pioneer farmers first cleared the land of its prairie vegetation.

And, of course, the birds. My lovely birds. Blue-winged teals and hooded mergansers. Kildeers and snipes. White-throated sparrows and the first palm warbler of the season. Blue-grey gnat catchers and red-headed woodpeckers. Forty species in all. Apologies for the lack of bird pictures – sometimes I need to leave the camera at home and just relish them through the binocs. But I did manage to snap a cellphone pic of the sandhill crane.

It’s no accident, of course, that the name of my blog is A Midewin Almanac, an homage to Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. And for me the sight and sound of that crane crystalizes that connection. It calls instantly to mind a passage from his Marshland Elegy: “When we hear [the crane’s] call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our unatamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men. Their annual return is the ticking of the geological clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun.”

Midewin is – for cranes, for all prairie plants and creatures, for me – a safe harbor. A sanctuary in every sense of the word. It is, in short, home.I loves me some fire

 

 

Imagine

A field sparrow in full voice with its telltale "bouncing ping pong ball" trill.
A field sparrow in full voice with its telltale “bouncing ping pong ball” trill.

I gave up religion a long time ago. Yet, here I am hiking through the restored woodlands and prairies of Midewin on Easter Sunday with strains of “Jesus Christ is risen today…” wafting through my head. Does this mark a relapse, a return to the religious roots of my childhood?

Perhaps. In a way. The resurrection of Christ, the return of songbirds, the re-emergence of woodland ephemerals, the recovery of the prairie following a spring burn? I’m thinking perhaps, maybe, imagine, it’s all one.

I was raised in the United Church of Christ and attended Sunday school and eventually Sunday services, well, religiously through my high school years. I was a frequent soloist with the adult choir and directed the children’s choir. Graduating from college with a music degree, I was hired by Holy Name Cathedral – seat of the archdiocese of Chicago – to sing in its professional choir. Although I am not Catholic, it is there that I fell in love with the pageantry of the Mass, the sacred grandeur of the sanctuary, the chant that transported me and the entire congregation to an otherworldly place.

For reasons that are the subject of another story, I fell away from church and singing both. And for many years, I searched, I wandered. Quietly.

My backyard garden, brimming with native plants.
My backyard garden, brimming with native plants.

I’m not quite sure how I got bit by the nature bug, other than it took precisely an extended time of wandering and quietude in places ranging from backyard garden to national parks to allow what latent affinity there was to blossom.

A recent controlled burn at Midewin removes invasives and replenishes the soils, setting the stage for the return of more than a hundred native prairie species.
A recent controlled burn at Midewin removes invasives and replenishes the soils, setting the stage for the return of more than a hundred native prairie species.

However, my love for nature came into full flower in discovering Midewin. For here is the living embodiment of the resurrection. Throughout Illinois, there remains less than one-tenth of one percent of natural land; and of that tiny fraction, an even smaller fraction remains of native tallgrass prairie. Once fully restored, Midewin’s 19,000 acres will encompass more prairie in one single place than exists collectively among all the scattered remnant prairie patches across the entire Prairie State.

 

Midewin in ecstatic summer bloom
Midewin in ecstatic summer bloom

At Midewin, staff, nonprofit partners and legions of volunteers clear invasives, sow seed, recycle nutrients to the earth through the controlled use of fire. As a result of our collective labor, an abundance of beautiful flowers and grasses are refilling the landscape. Rare and endangered birds find safe harbor in an increasingly uninhabitable world. Calling frogs fill the spring air with song that would grace any cathedral.

Spring beauties - an early woodland ephemeral - in Prairie Creek Woods.
Spring beauties – an early woodland ephemeral – in Prairie Creek Woods.

The return, the very survival, of these plants and animals, these kinds of entire ecosystems, depends entirely on us. This restoration work we do, therefore, is among the most charitable things we, as a species, can do. The most Christian, the most Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Humanist (the list goes on) thing we can do.

Imagine.

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.