The 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie has emerged as the chief roadblock to the planned Illiana Expressway, with environmental groups and federal officials raising concerns.
"Just imagine convoys of heavy trucks going down (Illinois Route) 53 through the heart of the Midewin to get down to the Illiana, which will run east-west at the southern edge of Midewin," said Gary Sullivan, senior ecologist with The Wetlands Initiative.
Sullivan was among a bevy of officials from environmental groups hosting a two-hour tour of the rolling Midewin prairie Tuesday. Among them were groups that have sued in federal and state court to stop the Illiana Expressway, or at least shield the Midewin from harm.
In July, officials acknowledged environmental concerns would at least delay federal approval of their plans for the expressway, which they expected to have received by May 2014. Illinois officials now say they expect approval by the end of this year.
"We are currently in negotiations with federal environmental agencies over what can be done to mitigate any impacts," IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said Monday. "We believe we have gone above and beyond the required coordination with state and federal agencies to make sure local impacts are minimized."
Illinois and Indiana have been soliciting private investment groups to build and operate the road. The 47-mile expressway with two lanes in each direction would cost an estimated $1.5 billion to build. Under current plans, private investors would be recompensed for time and expense with payments from the states.
On Monday, environmental groups stressed the sensitivity and uniqueness of the Midewin, with some of its recovered habitats almost extinct in the rest of the world. During the tour, Sullivan pointed out rare plant species such as the endangered leafy prairie clover, which only survives at Midewin and about a dozen other sites in the United States.
He emphasized species once listed as threatened or endangered in Illinois, like the Henslow's sparrow, have recovered populations at the Midewin. And it's all been done on a site still dotted by more than 400 bunkers where TNT explosives were once stored.
"It's about beauty, it's about bio-diversity, it's about a healthy ecosystem, and it's extremely rare," said Paul Botts, executive director of The Wetlands Initiative. "And frankly, it's about our own heritage."
The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was established in 1996 and is administered by the U.S. Forest Service. It was carved out of the former Joliet Arsenal, an arms manufacturing facility and military base.
Illiana Expressway boosters have cited the CenterPoint Intermodal Center just north of Midewin, as establishing a need for the road, which would connect Interstate 55 in Illinois with Interstate 65 in Indiana. Trucks from CenterPoint would have direct access to the Illiana Expressway by going south via Interstate 55 or via Ill. 53.
The first lawsuit against the Illiana Expressway handled by the Environmental Law & Policy Center on behalf of three environmental groups attracted only passing attention when filed last year. But this year, some of the lawsuit's concerns were also raised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A second lawsuit was filed this year challenging the Illinois approval process for the road.
The 2013 lawsuit has been fully briefed and the judge's decision is being awaited, said Environmental Law & Policy Center Executive Director Howard Learner. The suit filed this year is being shuffled between state and federal court, with the Center most recently asking a federal judge to send it back to state court.
"We just feel very protective of the Midewin," Learner said. "In 10 years, or 20 years or 25 years, the Midewin can be even more special than it is today."