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Local News

Preservationists make case against Illiana

WILMINGTON – Gary Sullivan considers the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie a unique place with ecosystems that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. 

It’s also a place that Sullivan, senior ecologist with The Wetlands Initiative, along with several other environmental group leaders, said is being threatened by the proposed Illiana Expressway toll road project. Those leaders said the highway would run along the south border of the tallgrass prairie and adversely impact the ecosystem and continuing restorative efforts. 

The Illiana Expressway project is a four-lane highway that would run between Interstate 65 near Lowell, Indiana, and Interstate 55 near Wilimington, where Midewin is located. The expected cost of the project is $1.3 billion, with funding provided by Illinois, Indiana and private investors.

On Monday, Sullivan gave local media a tour of several habitats to explain the virtues of Midewin. Also along for the tour were members of Openlands and Chicago Wilderness, as were Environmental Law and Policy Center attorneys, who are representing several environmental groups in lawsuits to stop the Illiana Expressway development.

At one area that was restored from farmland after more than a decade, Sullivan said the variety of plant species can be different from season to season. He said it’s the most diverse of the prairie restorations done thus far.

“This is sort of like an example of the promise of Midewin. This is what can be here,” he said. 

The roughly 20,000-acre site is on the former Joliet Army Ammunition Plant where TNT was once produced for the U.S. Army, according to the United States Forest Service, which administers Midewin. The site mostly consists of wet prairie, grassland, tallgrass prairie and some savanna. The land also is home to more than 100 bird species, 600 plants, 27 mammal and 53 fish species. 

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said the Illiana Expressway would impact the ecosystem by having a tollway run along the southern boundary. A tollway also would increase the heavy amounts of truck traffic already happening in Will County.

“[It would] take the amount of heavy trucks that are going today and put it on steroids,” he said.

Environmental Law and Policy Center attorneys are representing Sierra Club, Openlands and Midewin Heritage Association in two lawsuits against the Illiana Expressway project.

One lawsuit filed last year challenges a Tier 1 environmental impact study done by the Federal Highway Administration and urges them to reconsider the environmental impact of the proposed tollway on lands such as Midewin.

Andrew Armstrong, an Environmental Law and Policy Center staff attorney, said the center hopes court decisions regarding the lawsuits are made by the end of the year.

Midewin is teeming with life and the wetlands in it have numerous birds and other species, said Stacy Meyers, Openlands policy coordinator. Some of the bird species that would be impacted by the Illiana Expressway include the growing population of Henslow’s sparrows, which nest along Route 53, she said. 

“Having the safe refuge for all these species that would have no place other than here … yes that’s important,” she said. “But the people that come here. It’s also important to us. It’s important to people in our region to have this and to be able to understand this.”

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