Along Route 66 between Joliet and Wilmington, a unique partnership between environmentalists and the U.S. military is working to recreate the natural ecosystem on one of the most environmentally damaged areas imaginable: more than 19,000 acres of the old Joliet ammunition factory are being converted into the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve (815/423-6370, trails open daily, welcome center open Mon.-Sat. in summer, Mon.-Fri. in winter).

Renee Thakali of the Restoration team talks to a child about bison on the land.
Learn about restoration efforts at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie Reserve. Photo @copy; Leah Anderson courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

Since 1996, when the land was transferred from the U.S. Army to the U.S. Forest Service, the change from producing TNT to regrowing the native tallgrass prairie has been slow and steady. After years of toxic cleanups and careful husbandry, more than half the old plant has been returned to its natural state and now offers more than 34 miles of hiking and biking trails on both sides of Hwy-53 (old Route 66). Midewin (pronounced “mi-DAY-win”) is an indigenous Potawatomi word meaning “healthy balance,” and a visit here gives a good feeling for the flora and fauna that would have existed naturally in places like this all over the Midwest.