Old arsenal to explode in grass Big lawn: Fifteen thousand acres of tall grass are being planted in an old federal arsenal. The idea is to re-create the 22 million acres of prairie that once covered the Midwest. Elk and buffalo may not be far behind.

Sun Journal

March 31, 1996|By Megan Garvey | Megan Garvey,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JOLIET, Illinois -- In the winters, you saw only the miles of flatness, broken by scattered groves of trees. In summer, the grasses grew up to 12 feet high, flowering in bursts of color. The first Europeans to see it compared it to an ocean of grass, the blades shimmering in the sun and wind like waves on the open sea.

A generation or so from now, the high- grass prairie will be back.

For now, the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is barely distinguishable from the hibernating lawns of suburbia -- low, interrupted by bareness, seemingly asleep. But beginning with 15,000 acres to be turned over this fall to the U.S. Forest Service, this is to be the country's largest effort to date to re-create prairie, and to recognize its ecological richness.

Lawrence Stritch, the Forest Service project manager for Midewin, looks out the window of the old farmhouse that is his headquarters.

What he sees right now are the remnants of the Joliet Arsenal, a munitions plant that manufactured 4 billion tons of explosives between 1939 and its closing in 1977. But he can picture what will take 20 to 50 years to cultivate -- an ocean of prairie feeding a herd of bison and elk and native flocks of migratory birds.

It is a grand vision that will require the planting of thousands of acres, though the necessary seeds have yet to be stockpiled.

"There is a spot out in the middle of the arsenal where you can stand and turn in all directions and not see a building," he says. "You can really get an idea of what this will be." And, of course, what it was.

In the early 1800s, northeastern Illinois was inhabited by the Pottowatomi Indians. The soil and rains had made the territory rich. An Englishman named George Flower wrote in 1816 of his amazement at reaching this place: "From beneath the broken shade of wood, with our arms raised above our brows, we gazed long and steadily, drinking in the beauties of the scene."

Before permanent settlements intervened, it was an enduring, stable ecosystem. Its plants and animals, having found their niches, were difficult to supplant. The flatness of the land allowed fire to sweep across the grasses, keeping the forests of the East at bay. "When the fire gets into high thick grass," a settler wrote in 1818, "it goes faster than a horse can Run & burns the Prairie smooth."

The Pottowatomi were forced to leave the tall grass prairie in 1846, for the plains of Kansas. Mamie Rupnicki, born on the Pottowatomi reservation in Kansas, says the move almost destroyed the tribe. "There [in Illinois] we lived off the land," she says. "What the land produced there near the Great Lakes, and what this land we live on now produced, was a whole different story."

"Midewin" (pronounced "Mi-DAY-win") is the Pottowatomi word for "healing" -- an appropriate name, since part of the area is contaminated by toxic wastes that the Army is supposed to eliminate before the Forest Service takes control. Parts of the site are set aside for a veterans cemetery, a landfill and an industrial complex. But the centerpiece is to be an expanse of tall-grass prairie the likes of which has not been seen for decades.

Even in the long Illinois winter, which seems to continue well past the official start of spring, the prairie has its charms. The state-protected Goose Lake Prairie is down the road from Midewin, and the wind striking the dried stalks of grass sounds like a steady drizzle of rain, the amber-colored grasses lying like clumps of unbrushed hair.

But at Goose Lake, you can see farmhouses and the Dresden Nuclear Power Plant. In the heart of Midewin, you will see only grass and trees.

Illinois calls itself the Prairie State, but the title is no longer wholly deserved. Prairie once covered 22 million acres; now, it covers one-tenth of 1 percent of that.

"People would notice if you went to Colorado and started mowing down the mountains, but after the invention of the steel plow the prairie disappeared without a thought," says Bruce Boyd of the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit group that fought for the establishment of Midewin.

The flat landscape that has inspired more than one passing motorist to sigh with boredom frightened the pioneers. "People forget that this was 'the West' in the mid-1800s," says Gerald Adelmann, director of Open Lands, a conservation group. "Many people found it intimidating. They thought all the endless fields of grass suggested infertility."

But it is some of the most fertile land in the world.

West of the Mississippi, there was less than 20 inches of rain a year. The land here was vastly richer. "This is the land you read about in old books, where the grass stood taller than a man on horseback," says Francis Harty, a biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "This region was a huge transition area between the forests of the East Coast and the mid- and short-grass prairies of the Great Plains."

Midewin may be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Mr. Stritch of the Forest Service says the park will be large enough to support a variety of endangered bird species, as well as the bison and elk that have been absent from the area for nearly a century.

"We can have someone mow the grass to the length the different bird species require, or we can bring in animals that graze differently and produce the results naturally," he says.

And it is the thought of a herd of bison roaming the grasses and wildflowers that captures the imagination. Mr. Stritch, whose desk is decorated with plastic buffalo statues, suggests that adults feel about bison the way children do about dinosaurs.

"That will be a day to mark on our calendar," says Sandi Stern of the Nature Conservancy. "The day they let the bison onto the prairie."

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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