Picture the rolling Midwest prairie: sweeping expanses of verdant grassland, intermittent wetlands and creeks, a herd of bison grazing peacefully. This could be 200 years ago—but it’s today. Just an hour outside Chicago, in fact. It’s the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, a unit of the U.S. Forest Service.
Prairies once covered much of North America. They were vast and varied ecosystems teeming with hundreds of species of grasses, flowering plants, insects, birds and other animals, including bison by the millions, which sustained Native Americans for thousands of years. Today, less than one-tenth of one percent of true prairie is left. Efforts to restore this vibrant landscape are helping to ensure that it’s not lost forever.
Midewin is a landscape in transition. These 20,000 acres were once Potawatomi homeland—in fact, Midewin (mi-DAY-win) is a Potawatomi word for “healing.” Beginning in the early 1800s, pioneer homesteads and later family farms pushed the native inhabitants out and plowed the native grasses under. Agriculture and urbanization left no space for prairies.
In the early 1940s, the Department of Defense began buying up the small farms comprising what is now Midewin in order to build ammunition plants. By the late 1980s, the facilities were decommissioned and in 1996 the land was transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. Midewin became the nation’s first national tallgrass prairie. Then began the long process of removing buildings, paved roads, concrete bunkers and other remains of human-built infrastructure.
Since 2012, the National Forest Foundation (NFF) has taken a vital role in Midewin’s transition. The NFF is a nonprofit that works with the Forest Service, private foundations and local groups to enhance and restore our national forest landscapes—in this case, grasslands. REI is making a $30,000 donation to the NFF to aid the Midewin Youth Corps, a unique component of this restoration effort. This amount is part of a larger donation, up to $1 million,* that the co-op is making to the foundation through REI members using their REI Co-op Mastercard®.
Every summer the NFF invites—and pays—urban youth from North Lawndale College Prep High School in Chicago to take part in a six-week summer internship at the prairie.
“For these predominantly minority youth, working on a Midewin crew is a great introduction to the wonders of the natural environment,” NFF Communications Director Greg Peters said.
The students have tracked and documented bug populations, measured grass growth, maintained trails, collected seeds, studied bird-nesting sites, planted native species and removed invasive species. The hope? That these young people may one day become public land advocates and find careers in conservation.
“The Youth Corps participants have expressed that the hands-on learning and exposure to wildlife are truly eye-opening experiences,” Peters said.
A herd of 27 bison, introduced in the fall of 2015 by the NFF and other partners, has become a fascinating and beloved addition to the Midewin prairie. Thanks to calves being born, the herd now numbers about 50. Visits to Midewin—by hikers and cyclists in summer, cross-country skiers in winter—have picked up as interest in the bison grows.
As youth crews, recreational visitors and volunteers of all ages build a connection to Midewin’s natural beauty and history, the land gains a stronger connection to communities within Chicago and surrounding areas.
“Bringing together diverse groups to collaborate in stewardship is a key goal of the National Forest Foundation,” Peters said. “We’re grateful to all the people who come and help out at Midewin and other projects across the country.”
Are you interested in volunteering at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie this summer? Pitch in and you could help gather native seeds and plant vegetation alongside our next generation of public land stewards. Be sure to bring your binoculars to get a good look at those frisky bison calves. Learn more here.
Did you know?
Each time REI members make a purchase with their REI Co-op Mastercard, REI will make a donation to the National Forest Foundation—up to $1 million.* As the nonprofit partner of the U.S. Forest Service, the NFF works to restore and enhance ecosystems, trails, rivers, campsites and more in our treasured national forests. If you’re a cardmember, you can feel good knowing your purchases help make initiatives like this project possible.
*REI will donate $0.10 per REI Co-op Mastercard purchase transaction made between 4/1/2017 and 12/31/2017 to the National Forest Foundation, up to $1 million. Non-Purchase transactions, including cash advances, convenience checks, balance transfer, and other advance transactions as defined in the Cardmember Agreement, as well as interest charges and fees, do not qualify. Transactions occurring in late 2017 may be donated in 2018. REI may change the benefit or named charity in future years. REI is solely responsible for making the donation.
The creditor and issuer of the REI Co-op Mastercard® is U.S. Bank National Association, pursuant to a license from Mastercard International Incorporated.
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