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Drive southwest from Chicago on I-55 and you pass through a microcosm of the midwest. You see endless flat fields that grow corn and soybeans in the summer but at this time of year are bare and black, their color revealing their prairie origins.

Scattered here and there along the route are heaps of tailings dug from the earth to uncover the coal seams that helped make Chicago and Gary major steel-making centers. Four of my uncles worked for the companies that mined that coal, and some of the tailings piles were there when I was a child and we drove old Route 66 to Braidwood to visit the family. So they have been standing for more than 40 years, and still nothing grows on them.

You pass an oil refinery, assorted factories, even a small stockyard. And creeping out from Joliet, from Bolingbrook and Romeoville, the latest version of the midwest: subdivisions linked by strips of malls and fast-food joints and franchised muffler shops.

But just south of Joliet the road crosses the Des Plaines River, and a few miles farther south the Kankakee. Between the two rivers you can catch a glimpse of an earlier midwest, an Illinois that existed for thousands of years before the land was plowed or mined or malled. Along the west side of I-55 is the Des Plaines Conservation Area, a 4,000-acre tract used mainly as a public hunting ground, but open to anyone outside hunting season.

To the east is the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, a facility created early in World War II to make TNT and other ordnance for the military. The plant's last big period of production was during the Vietnam war. Since then it has been mainly idle, and now it is on the list of Army facilities to be shut down and disposed of.

You might think an ammunition plant wouldn't qualify as a piece of primeval Illinois, but surrounding the ordnance works, serving as a buffer between it and the rest of us, is a very large piece of land. A total of 23,500 acres. The idea, apparently, was to locate ammunition plants in the middle of large tracts of land so if one of them blew up it wouldn't take any civilians with it.

Part of JAAP is wildland. Another 10,000 acres are planted with row crops, and 6,000 acres are in pasture. Both the cropland and pasture are leased from the Army by local farmers. Three creeks flow through the plant's lands; one of them, Grant Creek, has almost its entire watershed within the boundaries of the property.

Combined with an adjacent Army training area, which might also become available, the federal land totals 27,500 acres--43 square miles. And on those 43 square miles, in addition to the cows and cornfields, is the largest population of the upland sandpiper in Illinois. And a substantial population of the loggerhead shrike. And nesting northern harriers, common moorhens, king rails, pied-billed grebes, and cerulean warblers. Six of these seven species are on the state endangered or threatened list. The cerulean warbler and the loggerhead shrike are both candidates for listing at the federal level.

The Army land also supports four endangered or threatened plants, one threatened insect, and one turtle that is now being considered for listing at the federal level. I could go on, and I think I will. How about four birds on the Illinois watch list? The watch list is for species still too numerous to be endangered or threatened but undergoing significant population declines.

Many bird species are known to be sensitive to habitat fragmentation, and the 43 square miles of relatively unfragmented habitat supports many of them, including the Acadian flycatcher, American redstart, black-billed cuckoo, Kentucky warbler, scarlet tanager, bobolink, grasshopper sparrow, and both eastern and western meadowlarks.

In all, 107 species of birds are known to nest on the JAAP land. Its waters support 32 species of fish. There are also 23 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 345 species of native plants. Rare communities include a couple of prairie groves and some dolomite prairies. Dolomite prairies grow where very thin topsoil lies over dolomite bedrock.

Substantial wetlands also exist-- or could exist--on the property. Drainage tile has been laid under many areas whose soils indicate they were once wetlands, but if that tile were removed or blocked or just allowed to deteriorate naturally, the water would come back. This kind of action could be especially promising in the Grant Creek watershed. Since almost the entire watershed lies within the boundaries of the ammunition plant, destroying the tile could not have a bad effect on neighboring lands.

There are some bad aspects to the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. The main one is serious chemical contamination. Fifty-three separate areas, totaling about 13 percent of the tract, are considered contaminated. The largest of these sites covers 1,000 acres. The contamination is so bad that the JAAP has been granted the dubious distinction of being listed as a Superfund site. However, the Army is responsible for the cleanup, and investigations of remedial actions are already under way, so we can hope the toxics will be removed.

Whether the land will ultimately be protected is a very complex question. Under federal law, military lands that are designated excess are first offered to other agencies in the Department of Defense. If none of them needs the property, it is offered to other federal agencies. Right now, conservationists in Illinois are hoping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide to acquire the land and make it a wildlife refuge.

If that happens, the Illinois Department of Conservation will seek to develop a joint management plan with the Fish and Wildlife Service for the federal land and the Des Plaines Conservation Area just across the interstate. This could create a preserve with a total area of more than 30,000 acres. And this is where the big dreams really start.

I met Francis Harty of the Illinois DOC a few years ago at the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. I was tagging along on an annual census of the upland sandpipers there. The sandpipers like short grass, and they lived on the plant's 6,000 acres of pasture. We spent part of a lovely May morning listening for the eerie, lonesome calls of these birds, a sound that will send chills up and down your spine.

Now Harty has been assigned to dream large dreams for the DOC. To the west of the ammunition-plant land is the Des Plaines Conservation Area, and to its west are some large parcels of land owned by corporations. Just beyond them is Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area. The corporate lands are devoted to industries that, like ammunition making, require large buffer zones, so much of these properties is wild and undeveloped.

The dream in its purest form is to create a wild reserve of more than 40,000 acres that would be anchored on the east by the old arsenal land and on the west by Goose Lake Prairie. To make this happen, the Fish and Wildlife Service will have to decide to acquire the Army land, and the corporations will have to enter into management agreements with the Illinois Department of Conservation.

Harty points out that the management agreements are not acquisitions, that they do not grant any public access to the land, and that they do not interfere with the owner's use of the land. All they would do is coordinate management of the privately owned wildland with the DOC properties on either side. "Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge [near Carbondale] has 17 industries on it," Harty says. "It provides a model for how we can work together."

Prairie Parklands is the provisional name for this visionary partnership. Part of the management plan would be to plant prairie species of grasses and wildflowers on open lands that are now weedy meadows or cornfields. "We can raise plants on a large enough scale to do that," Harty says. "We understand the mechanisms now. And here we could do restoration on a landscape scale. This kind of opportunity is not likely to arise again."

A 40,000-acre prairie-savanna-forest-wetland complex in northern Illinois would achieve what Bruce Babbitt and Al Gore have declared to be the goal of their rethinking of the methods we use to protect endangered species. In this one place the ecosystems that support many of our endangered plants and animals could function naturally, could sustain all the species that belong on this land.

We might even have some big animals. The Joliet Army Ammunition Plant is surrounded by 37 miles of chain-link fence. It is a structure that was obviously destined to keep buffalo from wandering away.

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