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Multimillion-dollar federal ecosystem restoration project protects Will County 'gem'

Officials stand together and cut a ribbon.

From left to right are Forest Preserve Executive Director Ralph Schultz and Director of Conservation Andrew Hawkins; Forest Preserve Board Vice President Meta Mueller and President Annette Parker; U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood; and Col. Kenneth Rockwell, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Six years ago, when officials gathered to announce a major ecosystem restoration project at two Will County forest preserves, the site of the groundbreaking was surrounded by corn.

On May 31, when another group of officials gathered at that spot for a ribbon-cutting, the group was surrounded by thousands of prairie plants swaying in the breeze.

The ceremony marked the completion of a six-year $8.3 million project that led to a massive transformation of the landscape at two Forest Preserve District of Will County preserves, Prairie Bluff in Crest Hill and Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve in Lockport Township. The project involved more than 40,000 hours of work and included native plant seeding, prescribed burning, hydrology restoration and invasive species removal. 

Speaking at the ribbon-cutting were U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood; Col. Kenneth Rockwell, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District; Forest Preserve Board President Annette Parker and Conservation Department Director Andrew Hawkins. 

The project was funded and overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in partnership with the Forest Preserve District of Will County. More than half of the restoration funding was provided by the federal Water Resources and Development Act.  The Army Corps invested $5.5 million in federal aquatic ecosystem restoration funds into the land and the Forest Preserve contributed $2.8 million in land value. 

“Today, thanks to this project, nearly 400 native plant species have been identified within the preserve and at least nine of those are identified as threatened or endangered,” Underwood said. “It is critically important that we take steps like this to conserve our public land and our waters and preserve and protect our vital ecosystems.”

“As we continue to work in Congress to pass WRDA for 2024, it is projects like this one that meet our community’s needs that I hope will continue to benefit from this funding,” Underwood added. “This project is an investment in the resilience of our communities that will make sure that our public lands and our public waters are safe, clean and accessible for generations to come.” 

Rockwell said the completion of the project is a momentous occasion that stands as a testament to USACE’s and the federal government’s unwavering commitment to preserving and restoring natural ecosystems. 

In addition to restoring prairie at Prairie Bluff, the nearby Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve’s delicate and rare ecosystem was enhanced with the removal of invasive species and a more reliable underground flow of water. 

The restoration involved invasive species removal, controlled burns, and planting 79 different species of native seeds and tens of thousands of native vegetation plugs, he said. 

“Lockport Prairie is a gem nestled within Illinois and it holds a special place within this community,” Rockwell added. “Its dedication as an Illinois nature preserve site speaks volumes about its ecological and historical significance to the community and to the state. 

“Shaped by the ancient glacial movements, this pristine land has remained largely untouched serving as a sanctuary for a myriad of plant, insect and animal species. Through our collective concerted efforts, we’ve ensured that this natural haven continues to thrive providing invaluable benefits to both wildlife and the community.” 

Globally rare dolomite

The Will County restoration work enhanced and protected two preserves that are linked by underground water flow. Prairie Bluff, a former prison farm, sits on top of a water system that feeds Lockport Prairie. Lockport Prairie, which is situated along the Des Plaines River and was previously owned by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, features wet and wet-mesic dolomite prairie, which are among the most critically imperiled natural communities on Earth. As a result of this unique geological setting, the preserve is home to several federally- and state-threatened and endangered species.

Initially, the Army Corps replaced agricultural fields with native prairie species at Prairie Bluff and removed invasive species at Lockport Prairie. Prescribed burning was used to keep the prairies healthy. Also, the underground water system at Prairie Bluff was restored so it flows south unimpeded under Route 53 to Lockport Prairie.

Lockport Prairie is one of the highest quality habitats we have in Will County, the Forest Preserve’s Hawkins said. 

“Lockport Prairie contains nearly half of the high-quality wet dolomite prairie in the world,” he said. “It is an ecosystem that relies on stable discharge of ground water that maintains suitable habitat conditions for both threatened and endangered species.”

Before the Forest Preserve acquired the two preserves, the 319-acre Lockport Prairie site served as a flood control area for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and the 476-acre Prairie Bluff was a prison farm for the nearby Stateville Correctional Center.

Successful partnership

While this is the first partnership with the Army Corps that involves aquatic ecosystem restoration, the two agencies have worked together in the past on a number of highly successful wetland and habitat restoration projects. 

The Forest Preserve’s Parker thanked the Army Corps for partnering with the Forest Preserve on the major ecosystem restoration. 

“With this restoration project, we’ve made some significant improvements to both of these important preserves, which will benefit present and future generations,” she said.